Indonesia has “lost control” of its coronavirus response, experts have warned, complicating a planned mass rollout of China’s Sinovac vaccine to vanquish the pandemic in the world’s fourth most populous country.
The south-east Asian nation has been battling one of the region’s most stubborn Covid-19 outbreaks, attributable to ineffectual lockdowns and contact tracing. Last week, it shattered its daily case record on consecutive days, culminating with 10,617 infections on Friday.
There have been more than 800,000 confirmed cases and nearly 24,000 deaths in Indonesia, though experts believe the actual totals are far higher.
Against this febrile backdrop, President Joko Widodo’s government is championing a plan to inoculate 181.5m people — two-thirds of a population strung across more than 10,000 islands — within 15 months, starting this week.
Indonesia will rely heavily on the Chinese Sinovac-manufactured CoronaVac to inoculate its population, with 3m of 125m doses already delivered and being distributed at health facilities across the country. Mr Widodo, who is popularly known as Jokowi, has volunteered to be the first to receive the jab on national television on Wednesday in a bid to boost public compliance.
But analysts and health experts warn that the government is relying almost solely on vaccinations to control the spread of the virus.
“There’s been an explosion in cases, no serious contact tracing, incredibly high death rates and the hospital system is close to collapsing,” said Evan Laksmana at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
“Most health experts will tell you we have lost control . . . while taking on untested vaccination schemes and procedures.”
Indonesia has also agreed deals with other vaccine providers, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca, but Sinovac will make up the majority of the free vaccines available, said Mr Laksmana.
The decision to turn to Sinovac was made without knowledge of its safety or efficacy, said Pandu Riono, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Indonesia. “They weren’t open with the public,” Dr Riono said.
According to Sulfikar Amir from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Indonesia’s vaccine team consisted of “mostly businessmen and politicians, not medical experts and health professionals”, heightening a concern that commercial interests were prioritised over safety.
Indonesia’s department of health did not respond to a request for comment on its handling of the crisis.
The Indonesian food and drug authority has not yet approved the Sinovac jab, which has also not been given a halal certification — a critical step for acceptance by the world’s largest Muslim population.
Elina Ciptadi, co-founder of KawalCOVID19, an online coronavirus information hub, said there was evidence of anti-China sentiment and confusion among the public. The suspicions had not translated into a boycott of the Sinovac jab, she added.
Analysts expect emergency approval to be given as early as this week after the shot proved 78 per cent effective in late-stage trials in Brazil, the most definitive result of its efficacy.
But the policy focus on the vaccine was laced with danger as the health system creaks under the burden of rising cases, experts said.
“It is clear that the 15-month timeframe was developed under Jokowi’s pressure. Most experts believe that it is not realistic, at least not if all safety protocols are followed,” said Marcus Mietzner from the Australian National University.
Focusing entirely on the vaccine versus other containment methods such as contact tracing was “very risky” and could lead to “many unnecessary deaths”, he added.
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