Cambodia the world’s first countries to receive COVAX vaccines

The inside story of how 324,000 doses of AstraZeneca SII vaccines reached Cambodia, en route to protecting the most vulnerable people in the country.

Jaime Gill
AstraZeneca vaccine licensed to Serum Institute of India (SII) arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Chansereypich Seng
05 March 2021

The normally hectic Phnom Penh International Airport spent most of the last year nearly empty, an eerie visible symbol of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on Cambodia’s tourism industry and its wider economy. On the evening of 2nd March that changed, as a mask-wearing audience of Government dignitaries, international development workers, journalists and camera crews gathered to welcome some eagerly anticipated new arrivals: 324,000 doses of AstraZeneca SII vaccines, en route to protecting the most vulnerable people in the country from COVID-19. It was a big moment: Cambodia had just made history as one of the first countries in the world to receive vaccines through the COVAX Facility.

“The vaccines are so important,” said Doctor Oung Sophal, the Deputy Principal of Cambodia’s National Pediatric Hospital, which one of the hospitals designated to administer COVID-19 vaccines. “I have been worried that too many cases of COVID-19 could overload hospitals. If we can protect people against the vaccine, we can protect our health services too.”

An enormous global and local effort led up to this milestone. As the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, UNICEF was selected as the lead procurement and supply agency for the global COVAX Facility, where it works with Gavi, CEPI and the World Health Organisation to ensure the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally.

©UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Bunsak But
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Bunsak But
Doctor Oung Sophal, the Deputy Principal of Cambodia’s National Pediatric Hospital.

Within Cambodia, UNICEF and WHO have spent three decades as the lead technical agencies supporting the Ministry of Health (MoH) in strengthening its national immunisation programme so that more than 1.7 million children now receive lifesaving vaccines every single year. This long-term partnership made the two agencies the perfect fit to work with the Royal Government of Cambodia in developing its National Deployment and Vaccination Plan (NDVP), laying the groundwork for the most rapid and ambitious vaccination operation in Cambodian history.

UNICEF is supporting the Cambodian Government in multiple areas, including logistics, training and communications. It has helped facilitate regular capacity assessments and provided, installed and maintained cold chain equipment to boost storage and transport capacity. This ensures that the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines does not overstretch existing capacities and disrupt essential childhood immunisation services, while also strengthening existing health systems so that Cambodia will continue to benefit when the pandemic is over.

“It’s been an intense period. With so many vaccines being developed and the situation changing all the time, we needed to be fully prepared so that we were able to spring into action and roll the vaccines out as soon as they arrived," said Hedy Ip, UNICEF Cambodia’s Chief Of Health and Nutrition. "It has been a profound experience, personally and professionally, to be working with colleagues and partners to solve a problem so enormous that the whole world has been struggling with at the same time."

As well as logistics support, UNICEF has worked closely with the MoH and WHO on training the first doctors and nurses to administer the vaccines. Dr Oung said, “Throughout the outbreak I've been very aware of how vulnerable all healthcare staff are. We meet so many people every day, including sick people, and of course we cannot refuse to see patients.”

Dr. Oung said the training helped healthcare staff confidently address any concerns patients might have. One of his biggest fears was that the public could be deterred from getting the vaccines by misinformation. “It’s difficult when the real facts and fake news are both out there online,” he observed. “I tell people how important it is to verify what you read.”

To support such efforts, UNICEF and WHO have supported the MoH in the development of a Communications and Community Engagement (CCE) strategy designed to increase demand, reduce vaccine hesitancy, and address misinformation. UNICEF is also collecting and analysing information on public perceptions about COVID-19 vaccines through an ongoing COVID-19 social impact assessment study and a newly established social listening platform with the social media analytics company, Talk Walker. This data is crucial in informing the ongoing communication strategies of the Government, UNICEF and other partners, helping them address vaccine hesitancy directly. Training is being provided to local authorities to detect, address and respond to information needs in their communities.

The arrival of the vaccines is only the latest stage of a much longer journey. The 324,000 doses are the first of a total of 1.1 million doses expected to be provided through the COVAX Facility by the end of May, with that number reaching seven million by the end of the year.

"We have to live up to the spirit of COVAX and ensure that these vaccines are distributed equitably, so that they reach every person who needs them in every village in Cambodia," said Foroogh Foyouzat, UNICEF’s Representative in Cambodia. “Being one of the first countries in the world to receive COVAX vaccines is certainly something to celebrate, but I am even more inspired by the spirit of collaboration that got us all here, the way the Government, UNICEF, WHO and all the partners worked together with such determination. We will all still need to take precautions until enough of the world’s population is vaccinated, and there is still a long way to go, but I think today we have turned the tide on the pandemic.”