Defense Minister Tea Banh had already received his Covid-19 vaccine jab ahead of the planned rollout of 600,000 doses of Sinopharm shots next week when Prime Minister Hun Sen backed out Friday evening, saying he was advised he was too old.
“The vaccination process will officially begin [on Wednesday] at Calmette Hospital, where I will be the first to receive [a vaccine dose] along with other senior officials, except Samdech Tea Banh who has already been vaccinated,” Hun Sen said in a Facebook post on Friday morning, using an honorific. Some 600,000 doses of Sinopharm shots were to arrive on Sunday, he said.
But by 6:15 p.m. on Friday, the prime minister said he would no longer be getting his first dose of the Chinese-manufactured vaccine next week, because he was informed by the Health Ministry via an office of the Chinese Embassy that Sinopharm could only be used to vaccinate people aged 18 to 59.
“For me, I am more than 68 years old already, so I am not able to be vaccinated yet,” Hun Sen said in the evening Facebook post.
“The plan to vaccinate as scheduled on February 10, 2021 at Calmette Hospital will be canceled since I and most other senior officials are beyond 60 years old already.”
Banh is 75 years old, although it is unclear which vaccine he received.
Hun Sen also initially said Cambodia would distribute a vaccine approved by the World Health Organization — which Sinopharm is not — but later said the country could not wait due to the “urgency of the situation.”
Since January last year, Cambodia has reported just 470 coronavirus cases, including 452 recovered patients and no deaths, leaving just 18 active cases as of Friday. Globally, more than 100 million cases and over 2 million deaths have been recorded since the start of the pandemic.
Last month, the Health Ministry announced that China would send Cambodia its first doses of 1 million pledged shots of the vaccine, manufactured by Chinese state-owned firm China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm), before mid-February.
Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine said Banh had been vaccinated, but declined to say where and when, referring questions to the Defense Ministry.
Neither Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat nor Banh could not be reached for comment.
Vandine said Cambodia planned to vaccinate up to 10 million people by next year. In addition to China’s 1 million pledged doses, the country has received promises of 3 million doses from Australia and 7 million from the U.N.-backed Covax mechanism, according to Vandine. The government was looking to buy an additional 9 million doses, she said.
The vaccine will be distributed free of charge to Cambodians and foreigners living in the country on a voluntary basis, with doses prioritized by profession and registration, either online or in-person at health centers, Vandine said.
Before Hun Sen backtracked late Friday, she said the prime minister would get his first vaccine dose on Wednesday, followed by other officials, medical professionals and soldiers.
On Thursday, the Health Ministry said it had approved one of two coronavirus vaccines developed by Sinopharm. The vaccine was produced by the firm’s Beijing Institute of Biology Products, and is being assessed by the WHO. It anticipates an evaluation decision in March.
Sinopharm’s two-dose vaccine has been reported to be up to 79 percent effective. China, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan have authorized its “emergency use,” the firm’s website says. Pakistan, Iraq and Serbia have also approved its use, according to news reports.
Asked about any concerns about the Sinopharm vaccine, Vandine said she was not worried because as of late January, some 220 million doses had already been used in various countries.
“They have properly studied and at the same time, more than 10 million Chinese people have been vaccinated, and some other countries like Indonesia also used this vaccine,” Vandine said.
She said the Sinopharm vaccine was being evaluated by the WHO and was expected to be approved for emergency use soon.
“Based on the development and their evaluation, so far, [we] have not heard of any issue yet.”