As the United States and Europe ramped up their Covid-19 vaccination programs, the Asia-Pacific region, once lauded for its pandemic response, struggled to get them off the ground. Now, many of those laggards are speeding ahead, lifting hopes of a return to normality in nations resigned to repeated lockdowns and onerous restrictions.
The turnabout is as much a testament to the region’s success in securing supplies and working out the kinks in their programs as it is to vaccine hesitancy and political opposition in the United States.
South Korea, Japan and Malaysia have even pulled ahead of the United States in the number of vaccine doses administered per 100 people — a pace that seemed unthinkable in the spring. Several have surpassed the United States in fully vaccinating their populations or are on track to do so, limiting the perniciousness of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
In South Korea, the authorities said vaccines had helped keep most people out of the hospital. About 0.6 percent of fully vaccinated people who contracted Covid had severe illness and about 0.1 percent died, according to data collected by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency from May to August.
In Japan, serious cases have fallen by half over the last month, to a little over 1,000 a day. Hospitalizations have plummeted from a high of just over 230,000 in late August to around 31,000 on Tuesday.
“It’s almost like the tortoise and the hare,” said Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Seoul and focused on vaccine research for the developing world. “Asia was always going to use vaccines when they became available.”
In Southeast Asia, the rollout has been slow and uneven, dragging down economic prospects there. The Asian Development Bank recently lowered its 2021 growth outlook for developing Asia to 7.1 percent from 7.3 percent, in part over vaccination issues.