YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar launched a COVID-19 vaccination programme on Wednesday, with healthcare staff and volunteer medical workers the first to receive shots of the AstraZeneca and Oxford University vaccine donated by neighbouring India.
The Southeast Asian country managed to contain the number of COVID-19 cases early in the pandemic, but is now fighting a second wave, recording more than 138,000 cases and 3,082 deaths.
Last week, Myanmar received 1.5 million doses of the vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, amid a diplomatic drive by New Delhi to supply neighbouring countries just as regional rival China has also pledged vaccine consignments.
“This should create a situation to reduce the rate of infection, so it is such a relief for healthcare workers,” Tun Myint, a health ministry official at Yangon General Hospital, told reporters.
The number of daily new COVID-19 cases has dropped recently, though medical experts say it is unlikely to provide a full picture given relatively low testing rates.
“We are so tired from the long fight” against the pandemic, said volunteer medical worker Khant Ko Ko, who received a vaccine shot at the Ayeyarwady Centre in Yangon where coronavirus patients are treated.
Myanmar’s fragile healthcare system has relied heavily on thousands of volunteers to assist during the pandemic and some workers at the centre proudly pointed to the spots on their upper arms where they had been vaccinated.
In the capital Napyitaw, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi witnessed vaccinations at a hospital and warned that people still needed to keep up their guard against the virus.
“I worry some people will become careless,” she was quoted by online news portal Myanmar Now as saying.
Myanmar has an ambitious target to vaccinate the whole population of about 54 million people this year.
The health ministry has said up to 30 million additional doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been ordered with a further two million due to arrive by the first week of February.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a visit this month promised Myanmar 300,000 doses of a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine.
(Additional reporting by Zaw Naing Oo; Editing by Ed Davies & Simon Cameron-Moore)