U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris launched the Hanoi-based Southeast Asian office of America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, saying Washington’s alliances in the region aimed to mutually advance people’s health and security.
The regional CDC hub is designed to enhance health cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), officials said, at a time when countries in the bloc are reeling from soaring numbers of COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious Delta strain.
“Our partnerships in Southeast Asia are of mutual importance to the health of our people, the strength of our economies, and our collective security,” Harris said on Twitter during her visit to Vietnam, as part of her first official tour of Southeast Asia, which earlier took the vice president to Singapore.
Harris is the most senior official of the new Biden administration to travel to Southeast Asia to date. The regional CDC office was first announced by the Trump administration last September.
“The CDC office will advance global health security by maintaining a sustainable presence in the region, enabling a rapid and effective response to health threats – wherever they occur – and reinforcing CDC’s core mission of protecting Americans,” the White House said in a news release about the vice president’s trip to Hanoi.
Harris also announced an additional 1 million coronavirus vaccine doses for Vietnam, taking Washington’s total donation to the country to 6 million. Washington will also provide U.S. $23 million to help Vietnam boost access to vaccines.
Vietnam’s deputy prime minister and health ministers from ASEAN members and Papua New Guinea watched as Harris inaugurated the CDC office in Hanoi, the White House said.
The CDC, meanwhile, has had a presence in Southeast Asia for a long time, Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, said in a statement. Walensky and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra were with Harris in Vietnam.
“Our longstanding partnership with the countries of the ASEAN [region has strengthened public health laboratories, emergency operations centers, surveillance systems – all tools that are being called upon during the current pandemic,” Walensky said.
On the eve of Harris’ visit, China meanwhile said it would provide another 2 million doses of vaccines to Vietnam, taking Beijing’s total donation to Hanoi to 2.5 million doses.
A Sino-American strategic, diplomatic and economic rivalry between the two superpowers is playing out in ASEAN nations over coronavirus vaccine deliveries as well as the disputed South China Sea.
Before the donation to Vietnam that was announced Wednesday, Washington said it had so far donated more than 23 million vaccine doses and over $158 million in health and humanitarian assistance to the ASEAN countries.
Beijing, by contrast, has donated far fewer doses to members of the regional bloc than has Washington.
China has donated around 17 million doses – including the latest 2 million to Vietnam – to ASEAN countries, according to a total provided on the website of Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based research firm.
Back in June, days after Washington said that its vaccine donations and pandemic aid came with “no strings attached,” Beijing said the same.
But as Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, said on Aug. 17 there are “no strings attached to China’s” donation of COVID-19 vaccines to the country, “except that their boats are there.”
Duterte was referring to the presence of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters of the contested South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of, in contravention of an international tribunal’s 2016 award.
Washington, on the other hand, may even “agree to transfer IP [intellectual property] so Vietnam can produce vaccines,” Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), with which BenarNews is affiliated.
Close to ‘red line’
Health-care systems across the region are being stretched because of spikes in coronavirus infections stemming from the Delta strain, experts warn.
The Western Pacific accounted for 10 percent of new cases globally, Dr. Takleshi Kasai, the Manila-based regional head of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday. The U.N. health agency’s Western Pacific office covers 37 countries, including the whole of Southeast Asia.
“In some places, surges are pushing health systems dangerously close to what we call ‘the red line’ – where the number of critical cases exceeds ICU capacity, and hospitals can no longer provide the care that people need,” Kasai told a virtual news conference.
“[T]he Delta variant is now a real threat – which is testing the capacity of even the strongest public health systems in our region.”
For instance, quarantine centers in the Vietnam’s southern Binh Duong province are filled beyond capacity, with local authorities instructing patients not yet showing symptoms to quarantine at home, according to a report by RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
On Monday, Vietnam placed Ho Chi Minh City, its second largest, under strict lockdown measures through September. Vietnam recorded 354,355 cases of COVID-19 from April 27, the first day of the fourth wave of coronavirus outbreak in the country, to Aug. 23.
Neighboring Laos and Cambodia also saw the number of infections climb this week.
In Manila, meanwhile, many healthcare providers have been forced to turn away patients, with the state-run Philippine General Hospital, which caters to the poor, announcing on Tuesday that it had been overwhelmed and would stop accepting coronavirus cases temporarily.
Already, 73 percent of all intensive care units in Manila’s 332 hospitals were already occupied, the health department said. Last Friday, the Philippines reported 17,231 new infections – a record.
Thailand last week breached one million COVD-19 cases, while Malaysia has recently, reported record new infections on several days – on Aug. 20 it reported 23,564 cases, the highest since the pandemic began.
Indonesia’s COVID-19 daily caseload has dropped lately. But as of Aug. 13, more than a quarter of the country’s total infections since the pandemic began early last year were recorded in the four weeks prior.
Southeast Asia’s largest and most populous country hit a peak of more than 56,000 new infections on July 15, crossing 3 million total infections a week later.
Jason Gutierrez, Marielle Lucenio, Jojo Riñoza and Dante Diosina Jr. in Manila; Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta; Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok; and S. Adie Zul in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.