Prime Minister Hun Sen was inoculated against COVID-19 with the Indian-made AstraZeneca vaccines on Thursday, even as a new cluster of cases pushed the government to restrict movements and travel to Preah Sihanouk province.
Hun Sen is the first government official to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been produced by the Serum Institute of India. The 324,000 doses of the vaccine arrived in the country on Tuesday, through the World Health Organization’s COVAX Facility.
However, the government restricted all travel in and out of Preah Sihanouk province after the spread of a new community transmission cluster, dubbed the “February 20 event.” The cluster started in Phnom Penh and Kandal and has since spread to the coastal province and Svay Rieng.
At a press conference after getting vaccinated, Hun Sen said 200,000 doses of the vaccine will be used to inoculate people in the cluster-affected provinces and will be prioritized for older people, diplomats and workers at international and United Nations organizations.
“People who are under the age of 59 years will receive the Sinopharm vaccine and those over 60 years will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Hun Sen said.
Hun Sen had announced in February that he would take the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine but was instructed by doctors that people above the age of 60 could not take it. The government also released a long list of ailments and health conditions that would exclude Cambodians from taking the Sinopharm vaccine.
“There was a lot of criticism that I did not vaccinate with the Chinese vaccine”, said Hun Sen. “This was a medical issue. It was not a political matter.”
Two hours after being vaccinated, Hun Sen said he was not feeling any side effects. Senior ministers and government officials, who are above the age of 60, also lined up to get the AstraZeneca vaccine on Thursday, including Health Minister Mam Bunheng, Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Transportation Minister Sun Chanthol.
Hun Sen defended the government’s decision to accept 1 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China and said all his sons had taken the Chinese-made medication.
He added that Cambodia would buy 1 million additional doses of Sinopharm and AstraZeneca, which with the COVAX deliveries would total 4.2 doses for the first quarter of the year.
The COVAX Facility, which is an attempt to ensure equitable access to vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, will provide Cambodia with doses for 20 percent of the population, or around 3.2 million people.
The prime minister said the government had to curtail movements in Preah Sihanouk province to reduce the spread of the February 20 community transmission cluster but would allow trade and goods transport to continue.
“We can’t entirely block Preah Sihanouk province because of the transportation of goods but can with people to prevent the spread to other provinces,” Hun Sen said.
The government had announced a two-week school closure but Hun Sen said he agreed with Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron’s suggestion to extend school closures in Phnom Penh, Kandal and Preah Sihanouk.
Preah Sihanouk Governor Kuoch Chamroeun declined to comment on Thursday and referred questions to the provincial spokesperson. Kheang Phearom, the provincial spokesperson, posted on Facebook that all movement in the city, except for ambulances and goods trucks, would be stopped.
Chuon Narin, the province’s police chief, said mixed security forces were assisting with the partial lockdown of the province.
“We do not strongly restrict people’s travelling but they must respect the Health Ministry’s instruction and the provincial governor’s announcement,” Chuon Narin said, refusing to give further details of any arrangements made to block travel in the province.
CamboJA contacted nine embassies if they would accept the government’s offer to vaccinate their workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Only the Swedish and U.S. Embassy responded to requests for comment.
“I cannot comment on vaccines for the U.S. Embassy staff, but I would point you to the statement we made yesterday about the arrival of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Cambodia”, said U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier.
Camilla Ottoson, the first secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Phnom Penh, said Sweden was pleased that Cambodia was benefitting from the COVAX facility.
She added that the Swedish Foreign Ministry had not decided how to vaccinate diplomats working overseas.
Reporters also spoke to three people living in Phnom Penh and Preah Sihanouk who said they would get vaccinated if it was mandatory, with one individual saying a pre-existing health condition excluded her from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Un Sary, a 65-year-old tuk-tuk driver from Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district, was not sure if he would get inoculated and would discuss the matter with his family first. He was pleased the AstraZeneca vaccine was accessible to people his age.
“If it is a requirement, I will go to vaccinate with my wife,” Sary said.
Khim Khorn, a 77-year-old villager who lives in Preah Sihanouk’s Prey Nob district, was worried about taking the vaccine at his age, but that he would take the vaccine if the government made it mandatory.
He stayed home most of the time, he said, and the travel restrictions had not affected him.
“It does not disturb me because I am old and I always stay at home but for other people, it might affect their business,” Khorn said.