Sourcing Covid-19 vaccine a tough ask, say foreign business chambers

By Viet Anh   June 5, 2021 | 06:16 am PT
Sourcing Covid-19 vaccine a tough ask, say foreign business chambers
The first Covid-19 vaccines arrive in Vietnam in HCMC's Tan Son Nhat Airport, February 24, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.
The American, EU, British and Australian chambers of commerce say they can't do much to help Vietnam source Covid-19 vaccines quickly as some people have suggested.

At a virtual conference hosted by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) at the end of May, several representatives of business associations, including foreign ones, expressed their wish to be allowed by the Vietnamese government to take part in finding Covid-19 vaccines.

On May 31, Vietnam's Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long said the ministry does not monopolize the import of Covid-19 vaccines. Any locality or business wishing to access Covid-19 vaccines can contact either the health ministry or the firms that have already been authorized to import them, he said.

However, key foreign business chambers in Vietnam said the situation does not allow for easy access to vaccines.

Adam Sitkoff, Executive Director, American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hanoi, said Covid-19 was a worldwide problem and demand for proven vaccines far exceeds available supply. Vaccine manufacturers are working hard to increase production, but "this isn’t like ordering toothpaste online," he said.

"Please understand there is no magic plan that can make vaccines appear here quickly."

Sitkoff said AmCham is continuing to have discussions with senior officials about vaccine procurement and distribution, including ways that the association members can assist Vietnam.

AmCham supports the government’s initiative to establish a Covid-19 vaccine fund. In fact, 88 percent of its members say they or their companies would pay to receive a high-quality vaccine in Vietnam. U.S. businesses are ready to contribute resources once there is a transparent plan and timeline for vaccine delivery, Sitkoff said.

AmCham and many of its members are urging the U.S. government to prioritize Vietnam as it begins to donate surplus vaccines to other countries.

At this moment, the U.S. has surplus vaccines as demand for shots has dropped significantly; and more than 63 percent of adults have received at least one dose, AP reported.

The country has approved three vaccines produced by pharma giants Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Christopher Jeffery, Chairman of British Chamber of Commerce Vietnam (BritCham), said during the pandemic, all the vaccine companies have relationships with governments, and the supply chain is completely filled up for this year. They have ordered and ordered.

"So... independently buying or getting a massive amount of vaccines into Vietnam is unfortunately not really viable."

BritCham is working with the U.K. government to ensure that Vietnam gets the most number of vaccines possible through Covax, as well as looking at any potential bilateral support from the U.K. government, Jeffery said.

Meanwhile, EuroCham Chairman Alain Cany said the difficulty was getting access to vaccine supply and this cannot be done without partnering with the government. The private sector and EuroCham in particular cannot be seen as competing with the government in sourcing vaccines.

In practical terms, one option on the table could be a public-private partnership between the government and private enterprise. This could combine the procurement power and infrastructure of the state, which would enable vaccination to take place at scale, with the innovation and expertise of the private sector, Cany said.

Cany said he believed this would help speed up the program and enable companies to utilize their commercial relationships in Europe.

"Of course, the government will take the lead, but if it can also harness the power of the private sector then we can work together to help protect the public while also supporting Vietnam's economic growth and return to normal life."

As of June 1, statistics compiled by Our World in Data showed that the U.K. was a world leading country in vaccination programs and Europe was ranked second after North America. The most popular vaccine in this region is AstraZeneca produced by a collaboration between Oxford University and the British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca.

Regarding AstraZeneca vaccine supply produced in Melbourne, Australia, Simon Fraser, Executive Director, Australian Chamber of Commerce Vietnam (AusCham), said producers were covering domestic needs for vaccines in Australia. Besides, they have programs with other countries in the Asia Pacific region, including Vietnam, to supply vaccines.

Therefore, AusCham may not go directly to a supplier in Melbourne because they already have commitments to Australia and Asia Pacific countries.

"Alternatively, AusCham might work directly with AmCham, EuroCham, and BritCham to source the most reliable vaccine supplier for Vietnam," he said.

Regarding the country's preparation in receiving vaccines from different locations, Fraser said it's a very important case where chambers of commerce help Vietnam ensure storage facilities and logistics for administering vaccines.

"These efforts could guarantee business continuity, and future proofing the country against another Covid-19 wave."

Assistance for home production

Jeffery said that with the AstraZeneca vaccine, technology was less intense than Pfizer and Moderna, and BritCham members were supporting the Vietnamese government to acquire the knowhow.

"There is support in terms of intellectual property, technology and so forth," he said.

Noting that vaccine production would take time to happen, Jeffery said: "But quickness is not the goal in vaccine production. Success is the goal."

Cany of EuroCham said that as other countries are rolling out vaccines and reopening their economies, the next challenge for Vietnam is to match the success it has attained in containing the pandemic with an accelerated mass vaccination program implemented at scale and pace.

The government has announced an ambitious but achievable target of inoculating 75 percent of the population, and EuroCham wants to help achieve this with all the tools at its disposal, he said.

EuroCham has among its members some of the world’s leading companies in the healthcare, medical, and pharmaceutical industries, and they want to share their experience and expertise with the authorities in Vietnam to support and speed up the vaccination drive.

The chamber has also suggested that members with the capability could cover the cost of vaccinating their own workforce. This would help to reduce the burden on the state budget and also help normal business activities resume as soon as possible. In has found that about 70 percent of EuroCham members are willing to pay to get their staff vaccinated.

Sitkoff said it was hard to be patient in the middle of an outbreak, but "it is going to be a long time before Vietnam approaches community immunity."

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