SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN): Singapore’s Covid-19 vaccination exercise will begin on Dec 30 with healthcare workers at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, followed by the elderly aged 70 and older next February.
Vaccinations will roll out to more healthcare institutions in the coming weeks, with public healthcare institutions and private hospitals to arrange for their staff to be vaccinated at their respective premises.
This is in line with recommendations by an expert committee that front-line and healthcare workers and those most vulnerable to severe complications if they contract Covid-19 should be vaccinated first, said the Ministry of Health (MOH) on Sunday (Dec 27).
The elderly will be vaccinated from February next year, followed by other Singaporeans and long-term residents who are medically eligible, said the MOH.
This follows the Government's full acceptance of a 14-member expert committee's recommendations that were submitted last Thursday.
"Vaccination is not a silver bullet that can end the pandemic immediately, but it is a key enabler to getting us back to a safer state of affairs," the ministry said.
The MOH said vaccination will complement other "key enablers", such as safe management measures, testing and contact tracing, to mitigate any spread and to keep community transmission low.
In its statement, the committee noted that Covid-19 patients aged 70 and older have worse health outcomes than those aged 60 to 69, and so it is recommended to start vaccination for the older group first.
Protecting older people minimises Covid-19-related mortality and morbidity, as well as the potential strain on the healthcare system.
The committee has also assessed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which arrived in Singapore earlier this month, is suitable for use in people aged 16 and older for the prevention of Covid-19, it said, although taking the vaccine is still not recommended for pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals until more information is available.
This was after it conducted an independent review of the clinical data on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, which has been approved by the Health Sciences Authority.
The committee said the vaccine has demonstrated a high efficacy of 95 per cent, and its safety profile is consistent with the high standards set for other registered vaccines used in immunisation against other diseases.
The recommendations follow Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's announcement on Dec 14 that Covid-19 vaccines will be free for all Singaporeans and long-term residents who are currently here, with plans to cover everyone who wants one by the end of next year.
Other recommendations by the expert committee include:
> Everyone living in Singapore who is medically eligible for vaccination should be vaccinated when vaccines become more widely available, although it should remain voluntary.
Achieving as high a level of population coverage for Covid-19 vaccination as possible can markedly reduce the overall proportion of the population that is susceptible to the disease and the likelihood of uncontrolled chains of transmission, said the committee.
A high vaccination coverage also indirectly protects others who may not be suitable for vaccination yet, it added.
> Set aside about 5 per cent of available vaccine stocks at any point in time for specific groups of people who are of critical importance to the functioning of Singapore. These could include people involved in ensuring the country's water, utilities and other "nationally essential services" are not disrupted.
This is separate from public health considerations to prioritise certain population subgroups, so as to ensure Singapore would be able to continue functioning effectively amid a local outbreak, said the committee.
But the detailed identification of these groups is beyond the remit of the expert committee, it said, and will be left to the Government.
> Ongoing public health measures such as safe distancing, mask wearing and good hand hygiene should continue to be practised, until a significant proportion of the population is vaccinated and more data is available on the vaccine's duration of protection and its ability to prevent infections.
The committee was convened in October by the MOH to recommend a vaccination strategy for Singapore.
Chairman of the expert committee, Associate Professor Benjamin Ong, said that while Singapore currently has a low rate of local transmission of Covid-19, it remains vulnerable to the threat of a surge in cases.
"As such, it is important that we achieve as comprehensive a coverage of Covid-19 vaccination as possible across the entire population. We strongly encourage all persons who are medically eligible to be vaccinated when the vaccine is made available to them," he added.
Other members of the committee include MOH chief health scientist, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, Associate Professor David Lye from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, and Dr Anuradha Poonepalli from the HSA's Health Products Regulation Group.
The committee's report to the Singapore Government was based on information available as at last Wednesday.
It also said that while public health measures have been shown to be effective in containing outbreaks, the "fundamental challenge" is that the vast majority of people in Singapore and the world do not have any immunity to the novel virus.
"The development and availability of effective Covid-19 vaccines is a critically important milestone, providing the means to fundamentally contain the pandemic, diminish its impact in terms of morbidity and deaths from infection, and eventually allow societies to return to normalcy," the report added.
Singapore currently has a low rate of transmission, it noted, but the threat of an outbreak persists as the global pandemic intensifies and as the country resumes more activities.
It remains vulnerable to the disease and its spread, with the country's high population density and a significant proportion of older people, said the report, adding that there is great value in vaccinating the population widely to pre-emptively protect against the risk of Covid-19.
The committee said it considered four key criteria in assessing the suitability of vaccine candidates: Vaccine safety, efficacy, tolerability, and data adequacy of clinical trials.
It noted that the HSA's clinical assessment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine includes how it has high efficacy of 95 per cent, with no significant safety concerns detected so far.
But continued monitoring for long-term efficacy of the vaccine will be needed to determine the duration of protection, as well as for rare and serious adverse effects.
As more vaccines become available, the committee will make further recommendations on other groups to be prioritised, it said, such as those who live or work in settings where there is potential for rapid transmission and large outbreaks. - The Straits Times/Asia News Network