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What Explains Vietnam’s Bid to Buy Russia’s Virus Vaccine?

The Vietnam beach town of Nha Trang is popular with Russian tourists. (VOA News)
The Vietnam beach town of Nha Trang is popular with Russian tourists. (VOA News)

A lot of eyebrows were raised when Russia announced it was the first to approve a vaccine for the coronavirus, and even more so when Vietnam said it would buy up to 150 million doses.

Not many were expecting the news, but if it comes to pass, a few factors would explain how Vietnam and Russia got here. The two sides have a long history, from founding father Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary years in Moscow, to their membership in a modern trade deal. Vietnam has also been more aggressive than most other nations in tackling COVID-19, and it needs an affordable vaccine as the World Health Organization (WHO) warns rich nations against “vaccine nationalism” and hoarding.

The U.S., a key partner of Vietnam, has expressed doubt that Russia developed a vaccine so quickly. Other nations reportedly interested in the vaccine include the Philippines, Indonesia, India and South Korea.

Cold War history

Several nations have already put in pre-orders for other future vaccines, and there are more than 150 programs to research possible vaccines around the world, from silkworm cells in Japan, to new use of RNA instead of DNA in research.

Russia announced this month it is in Phase 2 trial of a vaccine, which involves testing on hundreds of people, as opposed to tens of thousands in Phase 3. Vietnam could buy 50 million to 150 million doses by 2021, according to the state-run newspaper Tuoi Tre.

“A vaccine that has been used in a foreign country may not require any more tests when it's imported to Vietnam,” Dr. Tran Dac Phu, an associate professor at the Vietnam Ministry of Health’s Public Health Emergency Operations Center, said on the national VTV station. “However, its trials must still be applied on humans to test its safety and effectiveness.”

Russia’s relations have frayed elsewhere, from interference in the U.S. presidential election, to its annexation of Ukraine territory which prompted European Union sanctions. By contrast, feathers are mostly unruffled in Asia, especially in Vietnam, one of the world’s last remaining communist nations, which had strong ties to the old Soviet Union. In addition to Ho Chi Minh’s studies of Lenin, many prominent Vietnamese spent their formative years in Cold-War-era Russia before coming home to found companies, such as Vietjet Air.

'Negligent' behavior

The Southeast Asian nation was already conducting its own vaccine research before the Russia announcement, one of many trials globally because scientists need to test on a diverse array of volunteers. However, the first viable vaccine is likely to come from a nation with many resources, leading to fears at the WHO and elsewhere that instead of cooperating, developed nations could put themselves first when a vaccine emerges.

Vietnam was also taking COVID-19 seriously before its peers, but the fight intensified in July when it reported its first ever death from the disease. It has now jumped on the possibility of a vaccine, following a pattern of attacking the pandemic aggressively.

Still people need to keep taking safety measures and not pin all their hopes on a vaccine, said Vu Duc Dam, the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam who has been leading the pandemic efforts.

“Because we controlled the disease well for a long time, people have become more negligent,” he said this month. “It’s time to remind ourselves that the pandemic is still going on and the vaccine will only be available to everyone in at least one year. We must strengthen measures to safely live together with the disease.”