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A garment factory worker receives a dose of Sinovac’s Covid-19 vaccine at an industrial park in Phnom Penh earlier this year. Photo: Reuters

Cambodia struggles with Alpha variant as Delta sweeps across Southeast Asia

  • Cambodia recorded fewer than 500 cases and zero Covid-related deaths last year, but an Alpha outbreak has pushed its caseload to around 73,000
  • As the country ramps up its vaccination effort, the highly infectious Delta variant is also a cause for concern
When fully vaccinated Cambodian boxing star Eh Phouthong came down with Covid-19 two weeks ago, he needed a continuous supply of oxygen and used a new tank almost every hour for the first 24 hours, according to his wife, Taing Somaly.

But the 46-year-old former boxer-turned-coach, who also has heart disease, got better after about a week of treatment. “He’s not feeling sick any more,” Somaly said. “Doctors told me without a vaccine, his condition could be even worse.”

Since Cambodia launched its inoculation campaign in February, more than 60 per cent of the country’s 10 million adults have received at least one vaccine shot. Some 44 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Most of the country’s 17 million vaccine doses are a combination of direct purchases and donations from China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm, while others have come from the Covax Facility vaccine-sharing initiative. Last Friday, Japan also sent the country 332,000 AstraZeneca doses.
A new batch of Sinopharm’s Covid-19 vaccine arrives in in Phnom Penh last week. Photo: Xinhua

But Cambodia continues to struggle with several hundred new cases daily, prompting authorities to say they will also inoculate children from the ages of 12 to 17.

On Monday, the country recorded 778 new cases, 475 of which were imported – largely from Cambodian workers returning from neighbouring Thailand, where a brutal third wave of infections is raging. Cambodia continues to allow international flights.
For now, most of its cases involve the Alpha variant, a Covid-19 mutation that was first recorded in Britain last year, and is linked to higher rates of hospitalisation. However on Tuesday, the Health Ministry said there were 39 cases of the Delta variant. About half – or 21 – of these were migrant workers returning from Thailand. The rest comprised their close contacts, healthcare workers and eight unlinked cases, demonstrating that there was already community transmission of the more infectious variant.

Thai groups provide Covid-19 aid as hospitals hit ‘point of collapse’

While Cambodia has had fewer than 500 infections and zero coronavirus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, an outbreak of Alpha variant cases erupted just as the country embarked on its immunisation drive, leading its caseload to shoot up to around 73,000, with more than 1,300 deaths in a matter of five months.

Dr Michael C. Thigpen, of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Cambodia, said the outbreak was caused by a breach in quarantine procedures that was recognised only after “hundreds had been infected and travelled around the capital and to multiple provinces”.

The pro-government Khmer Times newspaper in April said the wave of Alpha cases in February came after four Chinese nationals allegedly bribed Cambodian security guards to leave hotel quarantine before the 14-day period ended.

A vaccination site in Phnom Penh earlier this month, after officials said 2.12 million people, or 99 percent of the capital's adult population, had received two vaccine doses. Photo: Xinhua

At least two of the four women, who had arrived from Dubai, visited a crowded nightclub in Phnom Penh while infected with the Alpha variant, sparking a superspreader event.

Being more transmissible, the Alpha variant travelled faster than “Cambodia’s whole government response efforts could kick in”, Thigpen said.

Authorities imposed a weeks-long hard lockdown that ended in May, tightened punishments for those violating social distancing rules and travel restrictions, and sped up vaccinations. The country has also expanded its testing capacity, with 10 current active labs that can test more than 10,000 people daily.

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On top of this, Cambodia has the added worry of the fast-spreading Delta variant that has wreaked havoc in the region and elsewhere.

Thailand on Monday reported a record number of coronavirus infections in its Delta-fuelled third wave, while neighbouring Malaysia hit a total of 1 million cases on Sunday. The Philippines has banned flights from Malaysia and Thailand as it scrambles to curb the spread of the variant.

There have been reports of vaccinated individuals around the world catching the Delta infection, although having been inoculated, they do not fall seriously ill.

As of July 19, a total of 70 imported Delta variant cases had been detected among returning workers to Cambodia, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the variant had not been identified in the community as of that date, the WHO said.


The global spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19

The global spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19

Thigpen of the CDC said the Cambodian government was using continuous testing and quarantine to limit the spread of Delta infections.

But Dr Ailan Li, the WHO representative in Cambodia, said she feared the Delta variant would soon break loose.

“In many countries, the Delta variant has replaced other variants. We need to anticipate such scenarios in the future,” she said. “It is only a matter of time before the variant is introduced in Cambodia. Delta can spread more quickly and is linked to increases in cases, which also means more hospitalisations.”

Officials are urging people to adhere to Covid-19 rules, including wearing masks and not meeting in large groups or touching each other’s hands, even if they are vaccinated.

Delta’s spread shows easing all restrictions after vaccination is ‘ill advised’

Health experts keep advising the public to wear masks, wash hands and socially distance, and to avoid crowds, enclosed spaces and touching each other when they meet. But health ministry spokeswoman Dr Or Vandine said people were not following the rules and this had sparked community transmission.

“I would like to appeal for the general public to wake up,” she said. “If they are complacent, a public health disaster will occur.”

Li of the WHO said Cambodia also had to be watchful for hidden infections as not everyone infected with the virus would develop symptoms.

“In Cambodia, numbers of daily confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths remain significantly high and they indicate that the virus is not yet suppressed and community transmission is ongoing,” Li said.

Additional reporting by Reuters