Vaccine Updates, Journalists Jailed & More
Will Vietnam get a COVID-19 vaccine this year?
Good morning! I’m going to ignore US news while writing this. I hope everyone had a wonderful, safe holiday break (or if you didn’t get a break, just a good last couple of weeks). Hello to new readers as well! If you received this through a shared link, you can sign up for either the free or paid (US$5/month versions of the Vietnam Weekly below. I will send out a piece for paying subscribers next week.
I have a new story for VICE out on how the discovery of a female Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle outside of Hanoi has created hope for a species on the brink of extinction, while my colleagues at Saigoneer and I shared our favorite pieces from the site across 2020.
On to the news.
The cross-border COVID-19 scare discussed here last week was just that: a scare. No further cases have been detected, and rigorous contact tracing didn’t find any sign of community transmission.
There was another blip this week when a test result on a 22 year-old Vietnamese man who returned from the US came back positive after he had already left quarantine, but no other cases have come from that either. (An official at the quarantine center the man stayed at was suspended for 10 days though, as people aren’t supposed to be allowed to leave before they get their second test result back.)
In vaccine news, 40 volunteers have received doses of Nanocovax, Vietnam’s most promising COVID-19 vaccine, in the first phase of human trials. About 75% of them have reported no side effects beyond a light fever. Another 20 people will receive a dose in this phase, with the second phase expected to begin in February. That process will involve 400-600 volunteers.
Another domestic vaccine candidate, called Covivac, has been successfully tested on animals and is expected to be used in human trials starting this month or next.
This is excellent news, but even without any hiccups neither of these vaccines will be available in large numbers this year, while the government is also in talks with international vaccine developers.
In the most concrete news in that area yet, this week the health ministry announced that it has signed an agreement with AstraZeneca for 30 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine, enough to inoculate 15 million people, though they did not say how much this will cost. These doses likely won’t be delivered until late this year or early next year.
Officials are also in talks with Pfizer and the Russian and Chinese governments regarding their respective vaccines, while Vietnam will also have access to vaccines through the World Health Organization’s Covax program (potentially enough to cover 15.6 million people).
As with the AstraZeneca vaccine though, there is no set timeline for any of this, and it seems likely that there will be little, if any, COVID-19 vaccine availability in Vietnam this year. (I’ll re-share my VICE piece from November on why the Vietnamese government isn’t in a rush on this.)
In aviation news, inbound flights from countries with known cases of COVID-19 mutations have been banned, though right now only the United Kingdom and South Africa are known to be on that list. (I also don’t know what impact this actually has, as there are no standard inbound flights anyway.)
Friend-of-the-letter James Pearson has a great round-up for Reuters on how Vietnam’s sterling handling of the pandemic has given it a huge economic advantage going into 2021, though the General Statistics Office also announced that 32.1 million workers were impacted by the pandemic last year (meaning they either lost their job or had hours reduced).
Work Begins on Long Thanh International Airport
The heading says it all: after years of waiting, initial work finally started this week on Ho Chi Minh City’s massive new airport, which is actually located in neighboring Dong Nai Province.
It will still be some time before real construction work begins, as the first step is clearing the huge tract of land of unexploded ordnance - Zing has some great photos of mine detectors lined up at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Long Thanh’s first phase, which will cost over US$4 billion and include one runway and terminal, is scheduled for completion in 2025, while by 2040 it will grow to four runways and terminals capable of handling 100 million passengers per year. (Tan Son Nhat, the current airport, has a capacity of 25 million passengers but was operating at over 30 million annually before the pandemic.)
It’s great that Long Thanh is taking this step closer to reality, but long-time readers know that I’m pessimistic about major infrastructure projects here, and this is among the biggest (if not the biggest) in modern Vietnamese history. Road connections to Long Thanh from central HCMC are not good, and there is no rail link - there are plans to change that, but I haven’t seen anything about when those projects might start.
Such infrastructure will have to go in if Long Thanh is to compete with Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok as a regional hub.
For reference, Tan Son Nhat and downtown Saigon are on the far left, while Long Thanh is the pin on the far right. (The blue dot is me - hello!)
In related news, Vietravel Airlines, the country’s newest domestic airline, is expected to begin flying this month. (It’s pronounced Viet-travel, but reads as Viet-ravel to me.) Here’s one of their planes that I spotted at the airport last month.
Three Journalists Jailed
In decidedly darker news, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court sentenced Pham Chi Dung to 15 years in jail and Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan to 11 years each on charges of “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state.”
The three are well-known independent journalists - Dung founded the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam in 2014, and police alleged that the organization seeks regime change.
Dung has written for outlets such as Voice of America, while Thuy contributed to Radio Free Asia (whose website is blocked here).
The sentences have been slammed by human rights groups, while a press release from the European Union’s delegation to Vietnam said the EU “expects the Vietnamese authorities to immediately release Mr Dung, Mr Thuy and Mr Tuan, as well as all journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders imprisoned for having peacefully expressed their views.”
For The Diplomat, Sebastian Strangio has more background on why the trio was arrested, as well as the trial’s relation to the upcoming national congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (scheduled to begin on the 25th). Friend-of-the-letter Chris Humphrey wrote about this confluence of events for the South China Morning Post as well.
1,000 people rescued from slavery (Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation)
What’s to become of Hanoi’s last green holdout ‘Banana Island’? (Southeast Asia Globe)
Have a great weekend!