BISHKEK, (Kyrgyzstan): Kyrgyzstan kicked off its coronavirus vaccination campaign on Monday using China's Sinopharm jab, as the West accuses Beijing and Moscow of using their vaccines as tools to win geopolitical clout.
Russia and China both compete for economic and political influence in Central Asia, a majority Muslim former Soviet region, and also dominate the vaccine race there.
Beijing this month donated 150,000 doses of the two-shot jab to Kyrgyzstan, enough to vaccinate 75,000 people, or just over one percent of the 6.5 million population.
Energy-rich Kazakhstan rolled out vaccinations last month using Russia's Sputnik V vaccine but intends to introduce a nationally produced jab later.
In Kyrgyzstan, Health Minister Alymkadyr Beishenaliyev had the first shot of the campaign, sporting a vest and a smile after consulting with a doctor. "I feel fine," Beishenaliyev told reporters afterwards, while admitting his fear of injections. Kyrgyzstan has also registered Russia's Sputnik, with Beishenaliyev saying that his country expected to receive up to half a million doses of that vaccine in May or June.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in the region face an uphill battle against vaccine scepticism as they aim to avoid another period like last summer when the virus overwhelmed health systems and tore through communities. In Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, 54-year-old resident Asylbek Nuraliyev said that he had doubts over Sinopharm's quality, citing the low quality of many Chinese goods that have poured into the country in recent years. "I think it's better to wait and get the Russian vaccine," Nuraliyev told AFP, adding he would also like to see more analysis of Sputnik's effects.
President Sadyr Japarov's office said last week that the head of state "does not need to be vaccinated" at present, citing advice from doctors.
Japarov's spokeswoman Galina Bayterek said the leader still has antibodies after contracting the virus last year when he was serving prison time on a hostage-taking conviction.
The 52-year-old, who was freed by supporters and propelled to power during a political crisis last October, will take the vaccine if his antibodies "disappear or decrease significantly," Bayterek said. Neighbouring Uzbekistan on Saturday received a million doses of a Chinese vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical company Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical Co.
The country of 34 million people whose vaccination campaign will begin later this week has said it expects to launch joint production of that vaccine this summer.
Russia and China have rejected claims they are seeking to use coronavirus vaccines to project their influence around the world and accused Western countries of hoarding vaccines to the detriment of poor nations.