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COVID vaccines

Mongolia resumes vaccinations as worst outbreak rolls on

Free from COVID in 2020, nation of 2m grapples with a sudden surge

Older Mongolians lined up outside health centers on Thursday hoping to get their second shot of COVID vaccine, but the public vaccination program only resumed Friday. (Photo by Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir)

ULAANBAATAR -- Mongolia on Friday resumed its public COVID vaccination drive, two weeks after suspending the effort to keep people from gathering at health centers amid the country's worst outbreak and a shortfall in supplies.

The country is being hit with over 1,000 new cases a day, up from about 100 in mid-March. As of Thursday, Mongolia had recorded 26,692 total infections and 68 deaths, 44 of which came after April 10, when the capital went into lockdown.

Late Thursday, the government took delivery of 600,000 doses of a COVID vaccine from China's Sinopharm that had been scheduled to arrive on April 10. Neither the government nor the company has explained the delay.

Earlier Thursday, the country received 50,400 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine via the World Health Organization's Covax initiative for developing countries.

For most of last year, Mongolia felt little direct impact from the coronavirus outbreak despite its long border with China and cold climate. The first domestic transmission was reported on Nov. 11. As the outbreak spread, the government set a goal of vaccinating at least 60% of the country's 2 million people by July.

"People are not following social distancing guidelines and not properly wearing masks," Dr. Enkhsaikhan Lkhagvasuren, director of the Public Health Policy Department, told Nikkei Asia. "That is why we are seeing an increase in the number of incidents. The majority of cases are the result of people being in close contact and taking off their masks while they are near their colleagues."

Some suspect the outbreak might be due to the mutated strains.

"We can't tell for certain whether the rise in numbers is due to a new variant because we don't actually have a sequencing lab to see the strains," immunologist Mandakhnaran Davaadorj said. While noting a delay in opening a lab, he pointed out that authorities this month received funding from the WHO so testing and genetic sequencing capabilities can be enhanced.

"The country has never faced a challenge like this before," Davaadorj said, "so you can't fault them on erratic decisions."

Since Feb. 22, more than 600,000 have received their first vaccine dose, but only 21,606 have received their second.

The vaccine drive kicked off in February with 150,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine donated by India and 300,000 of the Sinopharm formulation, financed by China.

In March, Mongolia received another 14,400 AstraZeneca vaccine doses via Covax as well as 25,740 BioNTech doses. The first shipment of 300,000 Sinopharm doses arrived on April 2.

The Sinopharm, BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines require two doses for full effectiveness.

As word spread this week that new supplies would be arriving, older citizens began lining up at health centers, having heard rumors that those older than 50 who had gotten their first shot could go ahead with their second. Most were turned away before Friday.

According to the health ministry, the country had only 137,192 vaccine doses left as of Tuesday. Amid the lockdown, vaccines have been available only for essential workers.

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