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Business trends

Philippines and Indonesia lead ASEAN companies' COVID vaccine push

Businesses to inoculate employees for free in bid to restart operations

A woman receives the Sinovac Biotech vaccine in Manila. Across Southeast Asia, companies are moving to vaccinate their employees for free.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Call center Concentrix is set to vaccinate its 100,000 staff members in the Philippines. Indonesian coal mining and energy group Adaro Energy will inoculate its 12,000 employees. Meanwhile, Thai business chambers plan to offer shots to their workforces.

Across Southeast Asia, companies are moving to import COVID shots and vaccinate their employees for free as new surges of infections threaten operations already disrupted by the pandemic.

Cash-strapped governments, for their part, have allowed companies to bear part of the burden of costly vaccinations and help speed up economic recovery despite the global shortage of vaccines.

Last month, the Philippines sealed a deal with U.S. vaccine maker Moderna for 20 million doses under a "tripartite" agreement. Signing on behalf of the private sector, which will get 7 million doses, was ports and casino tycoon Enrique Razon, who pledged to shoulder the logistics cost for vaccine delivery.

Earlier, over 300 companies ordered 2.6 million doses from U.K. pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, half of which will be donated to the government.

"Companies are aware of the possible delays [in the rollout] and that it will be challenging for the government to implement this. That's why they are taking the initiative," said Astro del Castillo, managing director at First Grade Finance in Manila.

The Philippines has so far received a combined 3 million doses from Sinovac Biotech and AstraZeneca and is expecting the delivery of 1 million more Sinovac vaccines in April and another 2 million in May. But the pace of delivery is raising worries over whether it can hit its goal of vaccinating 70% of its 105 million people this year.

The country's economy contracted by a record 9.6% last year, ravaging many businesses. But under the state vaccination program, employees from private businesses will have their turn only after medical workers, the elderly and people with comorbidities are vaccinated.

Facing mounting criticisms due to delayed vaccinations as the Philippines wrested with record number of new infections, President Rodrigo Duterte in late March permitted more imports by companies, although COVID-19 task force officials later clarified that purchases must still pass through the government.

"I have ordered [the vaccination czar] to sign any and all documents that would allow the private sector to import at will," Duterte said in a televised address. "No matter how much or how many they want to bring in, it's OK with me."

A man receives an AstraZeneca shot in Indonesia, where the Health Ministry in late February began allowing companies to secure vaccines for their own employees.   © Reuters

Indonesia, the region's largest and most populous economy, is in a similar situation. Its Health Ministry in late February allowed companies to secure vaccines for their own employees and shoulder the expenses. Currently, the government's vaccination program is limited to groups including health and public workers, as well as people age 60 or older.

The policy is aimed at sharing the cost of vaccinating 181.5 million people, nearly 70% of the population, to reach herd immunity. The government has allocated 58.2 trillion rupiah (nearly $4 billion) for its free vaccination program this year alone.

As of March 26, over 17,000 companies had registered for private vaccination through the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry -- which has been appointed to facilitate the process -- representing over 8.6 million employees. However, as of last week, none had gotten access to any vaccine.

"We're still waiting. ... As of today, no technical guidance has been issued [for vaccination of employees], and no mention of [available vaccine] amounts," Indonesian Employers Association Chairman Hariyadi Sukamdani told a webinar on April 8. "We've told the health minister, if vaccination [for employees] is delayed through the second quarter, it is better to wait for the government's program instead."

Meanwhile, in Thailand, which is reporting record new COVID-19 cases, the Federation of Thai Industries and the Thai Chamber of Commerce also look to secure vaccines for their sectors to keep business operations going amid the threat of virus resurgence.

But the government only allows shots approved by its Food and Drug Administration. The agency has given a green light to vaccines made by Sinovac, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Additionally, India's Bharat Biotech is in the process of submitting documents for the registration of its COVID-19 vaccine, according to Secretary-General Paisal Dunkhun of the Food and Drug Administration. He revealed that 10 more drugmakers have shown interest in registering.

The agency said the approval process takes roughly 30 days, as it needs to verify documents, research records and efficacy as well as safety. Thailand's inoculations could accelerate if more vaccines from wider sources flow into the market.

A World Health Organization expert has welcomed the corporate involvement. "In general, the public sector will have to work in collaboration with the private sector in the vaccine deployment because in many parts of the world there will simply not be enough health workers available," said Ann Lindstrand, an immunization expert at WHO.

But amid global supply shortage, Lindstrand urged government to prioritize vulnerable sectors despite the need to kick-start business operations.

"While we understand the urge to get back to normal business and work again, WHO is recommending all countries to give priority to those target groups with highest risk of infection or serious complications or death: health care workers, the elderly and medical risk groups," Lindstrand said. "As long as the vaccines are in short supply worldwide, this prioritization is even more important for most possible public health impact."

In the Philippines, the vaccination drives are also expected to keep companies in good standing with Duterte, who has had hostile relationships with some businessmen, according to First Grade's del Castillo. Last year, as corporate donations flowed into the government, Duterte apologized to tycoons he had previously threatened to jail.

Erwida Maulia in Jakarta and Masayuki Yuda in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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