Cambodia is gearing up for mass inoculations against the Covid-19 virus, with China providing the first million doses while India has been asked to bolster future supplies and Australia has promised “safe and effective” access to vaccines.

The broad plan is to vaccinate 10 million Cambodians out of a population of 16 million and Prime Minister Hun Sen said he would be the first to be inoculated once the first vaccines are delivered from China. Access to the vaccines will be free and voluntary.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Cambodia have been small compared with elsewhere, with just 441 people infected with the virus, 386 recoveries and no deaths as of Jan. 19.

Nearly all cases were among people arriving by flights from abroad, with just one community outbreak, known locally as the “November 28 Incident,” which was sparked by a trade delegation arriving from Hungary and resulted in lockdowns that were lifted by Christmas.

However, there has been a sharp rise in cases over recent weeks, with 69 cases confirmed among workers returning from Thailand, adding a sense of urgency to the Cambodian vaccination rollout.

Two Chinese vaccines, CoronaVac made by Beijing-based company Sinovac Biotech and a second by rival Sinopharm, are being delivered around the world for emergency use but approval by the World Health Organization is still pending.

Hun Sen had initially said Cambodia would only use vaccines certified as safe and effective through the WHO’s Covax initiative, designed to get the vaccines where they are needed most regardless of wealth and status.

“Due to the urgency of the situation, we cannot wait any longer,” he said. “We have strong assurances and good evidence that this vaccine is safe given that it was already used by the leaders of China and by millions of their citizens without causing them harm.

“There are other countries, like Indonesia, where the president has already been vaccinated using this vaccine,” the premier said, adding that 10-13 million people, or 60-70 percent of the population, would need to be vaccinated.

The one million Chinese doses will be used to inoculate 500,000 people. Medical authorities say Sinopharm vaccines are easier to transport than other vaccines and could be stored at temperatures of 2-8 degrees Celsius. Indian vaccines can be stored at up to 18C.

Critically, other vaccines required storage temperatures of at least minus 70C, refrigeration which Cambodia simply does not have, Hun Sen said.

That was the determining factor behind Phnom Penh’s request for assistance from India and in opting for the China-made vaccines despite tests outside of the People’s Republic that found CoronaVac was only 50.4 percent effective.

Hun Sen made the request to India through Devyani Uttam Khobragade, India’s ambassador to Cambodia, after her country approved two vaccines for emergency use and announced plans to inoculate 300 million people by August.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the approval as “a decisive turning point” in combating the disease.

Australia has also said it will provide Covid-19 vaccine assistance to Cambodia under the Covax initiative with WHO approval as part of its US$360 million initiative to assist countries in fighting the disease across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“We will provide funding for countries in Southeast Asia to enter into vaccine advance purchase agreements so that they can be at the front of the queue,” said Australia’s ambassador to Cambodia, Pablo Kang.

A longer version of this story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.