© Reuters. Medical workers in protective suits stand outside a quarantined building amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Hanoi

By James Pearson

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam approved its first vaccine for the new coronavirus and cut short a key ruling Communist Party meeting on Saturday as it battled its biggest flare-up yet of COVID-19, state media reported.

The new outbreak, in a country of some 98 million people that has been highly successful in curbing the spread of the pandemic, began on Thursday and has spread to Hanoi, where the ruling party is holding its five-yearly congress to pick a new leadership.

Thanks to targeted mass testing and a centralised quarantine programme, Vietnam has recorded just 1,739 cases since the disease was detected a year ago, including 873 locally transmitted infections, according to official data.

Authorities rushed to test tens of thousands after the health ministry reported two locally transmitted cases on Thursday, one of whom was exposed to a person who had tested positive in Japan for the more contagious B.1.1.7 UK variant.

Most of the new cases were in the northern province of Hai Duong, where 2,340 factory workers have been isolated after one employee came into contact with the person who tested positive for the disease upon arrival in Japan in mid-January.

The health ministry reported 32 new infections in Hai Duong, and two in neighbouring Quang Ninh province, bringing the number of fresh cases in the current outbreak to 180.

Late on Friday, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said Vietnam must have a vaccine in the first quarter.

Following Phuc’s comments, the health ministry approved the vaccine from AstraZeneca (NASDAQ:) PLC for domestic inoculation, the government said on Saturday. The government had previously said it was in talks to procure 30 million doses of the vaccine.

The port city of Haiphong, where a case linked to the new outbreak has been detected, also said it would separately seek to secure 2 million vaccine doses for the city’s population.

State media said on Saturday the congress would end on Monday, a day earlier than planned. The reports did not say why.

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