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COVID vaccines

Vietnam brewer Sabeco aims to secure COVID vaccines for workers

Other companies expected to follow suit as government signals private purchases

Bottles of beer move along a production line at a factory of Saigon Beer Corporation (Sabeco) in Hanoi   © Reuters

HO CHI MINH CITY -- Vietnam's biggest brewer is working to procure coronavirus vaccines for its workers amid a debate about whether private purchases would compete with the government or aid its inoculation efforts.

Thai Beverage-backed Sabeco said Thursday that it aims to secure COVID vaccines for as many as 12,000 employees in Vietnam, which had succeeded early in containing the pandemic but is now battling a renewed outbreak.

"Sabeco will ensure that we will go through the appropriate processes and get all necessary government and regulatory approvals when sourcing COVID-19 vaccines for our employees," the brewer told Nikkei Asia.

It appears to be the first domestic company to announce such a plan. The government, meanwhile, has prioritized providing doses for Samsung, Foxconn, and other electronics suppliers as the country's worst surge yet threatens its vital tech manufacturing industry.

European, U.S., and Vietnamese business chambers have also requested its members be allowed to buy doses. The government handles all negotiations for vaccines but has signaled that companies may be able to buy them soon. On Wednesday it published a list of 36 companies, mostly pharmaceuticals, from GSK to Pfizer, eligible to directly import vaccines. Those companies, which do not include Sabeco, must still apply for permission.

A global shortage of doses means countries and companies may be competing for vaccines, independent researcher Chung Hoang Chuong says. While businesses argue they can help reduce government costs by vaccinating their workers, Chuong says jabs should be available to people of "all walks of life."

"People without any connection to corporations may be left to fend for themselves," he told Nikkei Asia, "and that's my concern."

The Ministry of Health said it will create "optimal conditions" for companies and provinces to import doses "to have vaccine sources for Vietnamese people as quickly, early, and widely as possible," according to a post that appeared on Monday on the ministry's COVID website.

Vietnam's "zero COVID strategy" worked in 2020, when it kept cases to about 1,500 and expanded the economy more than most. But after multiple waves hit this year, the country changed tack, focusing on vaccines as the only way to ease back into the global economy. It is one of many countries in Asia with inoculation rates below 10% because most vaccines went to the U.S. and Europe while Asia focused on containment.

Sabeco, which has about a 40% market share in one of Asia's biggest beer markets, said it is "exploring ways to work with relevant authorities to source" vaccines to join Vietnam's "tremendous and ceaseless efforts" to contain the outbreak.

"As Vietnam faces an extremely difficult time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are willing, more than ever, to join hands and stand side by side with Vietnam to fight this battle," Sabeco general director Bennett Neo said in a statement.

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