For weeks now, Mongolia has been touted as an unexpected success story in the international vaccination project: the poor, mostly rural country lies between northeastern China and Russia's resource-rich east.
The country, which struck deals with its neighbors to stock its vaccine coffers months ago, drew attention due to its climbing international vaccination rate. But in recent days, Mongolia's COVID-19 rate has surged, raising questions about the efficacy of China's vaccines.
More than half of Mongolia's population has been fully vaccinated. But despite this, the country reported 1,312 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday as the country’s total infections neared 70K, with almost all of those recorded since January. New daily infections have risen more than 70% in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database.
The landlocked nation has easily secured enough doses of the vaccine from Russia and China. And as its case numbers rise, Sinopharm's vaccine has come under scrutiny because of a lack of transparency in its late-stage trial data. The vaccine faced more questions after the island nation of the Seychelles, which relied heavily on Sinopharm to inoculate its population, also saw a spike in cases, although most people did not become seriously ill. “Inactivated vaccines like Sinovac and Sinopharm are not as effective against infection but very effective against severe disease,” said Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health. “Although Mongolia seems to be having a spike in infections and cases, my expectation is that there won’t be large number of hospitalizations,” he added.
Doubts about the efficacy of China's Sinopharm jab have been spreading for months, as the vaccine was repeatedly shown to be less effective than the new mRNA jabs from Pfizer and Moderna-BioNTech.
In some areas, mutant strains may be spreading fast enough to cause concern even in countries where much of the population has vaccinations effective against them: Britain is dealing with a rise in cases linked to the Delta variant, despite having more than half of its adult population fully vaccinated, largely with shots from AstraZeneca and Pfizer. Still, the wave of infections has raised questions in Mongolia over why the government relied on the Sinopharm shots instead of a vaccine proven to be more effective. It came as Mongolians headed to the polls on Wednesday to vote for president, the first election since the constitution was amended to limit the president to one six-year term. The prime minister is the head of government and holds executive power.
A year ago, Mongolia was among the few countries in the world that boasted no local coronavirus cases, but an outbreak in November changed that. A political crisis ensued and protests over perceived mishandling of the outbreak led the prime minister to resign in January.
The new prime minister, Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai, has promised to revive Mongolia's lagging economy and end social distancing restrictions that have hurt businesses. A fresh wave of cases could threaten this pledge.