Cover 80% of population by Feb to outpace Omicron

We need to step up booster shots to achieve to around 360,000 doses per day to achieve a higher population level immunity by the end of February. – ART CHEN/ The Star

BOOSTER shots should be stepped up to quickly cover 80% of the population by the end of February, says Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud.

This is to minimise the impact of a possible wave of infections due to the Omicron variant in Malaysia.

To achieve this, around 360,000 doses per day should be given, compared to the current rate of about 250,000 jabs a day, the public health expert says.

“At the current rate, the country will require 72 vaccination days, taking us almost to the end of March 2022.

“In my opinion, this is too slow. We need to step up the boosters to around 360,000 doses per day to achieve this widespread population level immunity by the end of February 2022.”

He adds, “If booster doses are administered quickly enough, Omicron may lead to a short, sharp surge of infections due to waning antibody levels, followed by a rapid fall in new Covid-19 cases as booster doses re-establish immunity.”

So far, about nine million booster jabs have been administered.

“This means there are 17 million more booster shots to go,” points out Dr Awang Bulgiba, who is also the head of the Independent Covid-19 Vaccination Advisory Committee.

He believes the milder illness with Omicron is not necessarily due to the variant being weaker but may point to evidence of long-term population immunity prevailing over the variant.

“If the country can weather an Omicron-fuelled infection surge and re-establish sufficient population level immunity through booster doses, there is a likelihood that an equilibrium will be reached between the coronavirus and its human host,” Dr Awang Bulgiba says.

He notes that while some experts say that Omicron signals the end of the pandemic, others believe that the variant’s evolutionary path is actually an error, and we are likely to see more harmful variants emerging.

“Although there are merits to both theories, I would not rule out more variants emerging in the future.

“I do not think anyone can tell with much certainty whether there will be more or less dangerous variants in the future,” he says.

At the moment, it is clear that boosting antibodies via a booster jab protects against severe disease caused by the Omicron variant even though it has antibody-evading properties.

But whether we will need a fourth or fifth booster shot this year, it is difficult to say.

“We need more data on the durability of B- and T-cell immunity induced by the booster doses.

“If the B- and T-cell immunity holds, then there’s no need for repeated boosters,” Dr Awang Bulgiba says.

But the public must always fall back on following standard operating procedure (SOP).

Universiti Putra Malaysia medical epidemiologist Assoc Prof Dr Malina Osman says if the people do not adhere to SOPs seriously, Omicron could potentially wreak damage on the pandemic situation in Malaysia.

“Naturally, viruses are continuously mutating.

“But whether it becomes a variant of concern (VOC) would depend on its actual clinical impact. “It may or may not become VOC,” she says.

Dr Malina says there are some suggestions that we need new vaccines to prevent the spread of Covid-19 variants.

“I however, do not agree with depending on new batches of vaccines as this will take time.

“We can act now via adhering to SOPs and conservative self-determined decisions on restricted movements.

“This is the most appropriate measure at the time being,” she adds.

While the Health Ministry and Institute for Medical Research is proceeding with vaccine research, Dr Malina also hopes simultaneous studies can be done to develop new drugs against infections.

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