So, where does Malaysia stand in its fight against Covid-19 with the impending availability of vaccines?
The country, according to epidemiologist Prof Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud of Universiti Malaya, thought it had gotten on top of the problem in August, only to be startled by triple-digit daily increases of new infections in October and four digits since November.
"What time that was bought with the first MCO (movement control order) in March did not seem to have prepared us to deal with the third wave, which is now sweeping across the country, contracting the economy, decimating jobs, causing a year's worth of education to be lost, closing our borders and radically changing the way we work and play," he said.
Dr Khor Swee Kheng, who is a health systems and policies specialist, cautions that the worst is not over.
"As this is a multi-year pandemic, a fourth and subsequent wave of infections is highly likely. This is especially true when we look at the experience of other countries in Europe or East Asia," he said.
The vaccine, Dr Khor warns, will make marginal difference in reducing the risk of a fourth wave in Malaysia because meaningful coverage can only be achieved in late 2021 or beyond.
Even with prevailing good news about vaccines, Dr Awang Bulgiba reminds that Covid-19 SOPs (standard operating procedures) must still be followed strictly because the pandemic will take time before it blows over.
"Notwithstanding the possibility of the country getting its first effective vaccines very soon, we will still have to wear masks, physically distance and sanitise our hands for a while yet," he said.
Dr Khor agrees, saying that non-pharmaceutical interventions are necessary for the foreseeable future.
Vaccines, according to Dr Khor, are not a magical overnight solution.
Malaysia, he said, is competing against other countries for supplies, especially against high-income countries that have already secured enough stock to vaccinate their entire populations five to 10 times over.
Even if we have adequate supplies, Dr Khor said it would take one to two years to vaccinate 70% to 90% of Malaysia's population, given logistical hurdles and cold chain requirements.
"This first-generation vaccine may need to be updated as the Covid-19 virus strains may mutate or evolve. This requires new vaccines with new material, new funds to purchase these new vaccines, and repeated immunisation campaigns," he said.
Dr Awang Bulgiba hopes that researchers and policymakers will make a concerted effort to understand the root cause of the Covid-19 pandemic. He said this was essential so that we can protect ourselves and be better prepared for such a calamity.
"I also hope that policymakers will see the need for more and better public health and preventive care as this has been proven to be our first line of defence in a pandemic," he said.
Basically, we can't let our guard down in the fight against the invisible enemy.
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