PETALING JAYA: Health experts are divided over whether Malaysia’s private healthcare sector should be allowed to procure Covid-19 vaccines for their own clients.
Some have argued that allowing this would speed up the mass vaccination process and hit herd immunity sooner, while others asserted that this would only promote “queue-jumping” by the privileged.
Malaysian Medical Association president Datuk Dr Subramaniam Muniandy said private vaccine procurement should only take place after high-risk groups have been vaccinated, especially as current vaccine stocks are scarce.
“The focus now should be on vaccinating frontliners and other high-risk groups under Phase One and Two of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme.
“Only when these high-risk groups in the population are vaccinated and when there is more than enough supply of the vaccines, should private healthcare procurement and administration of vaccines be allowed.
“There is a global shortage of vaccines as many countries have now started inoculating their populations.
“We have a responsibility as a global citizen to ensure we do not contribute to the shortage so that poorer nations can also receive their supply of vaccines, ” he said.
He added that when enough vaccines have been produced, the private healthcare sector could procure and administer the vaccines to complement the government’s efforts and speed up the process.
“The aim should be to vaccinate the population as quickly as possible to protect lives and livelihoods.
“There is a demand for private healthcare vaccinations. For example, some companies would be willing to pay to get their staff in the services sector vaccinated, or their migrant workers, so that business can proceed uninterrupted.
“People who need to travel abroad for work or those who need to travel overseas for their studies will need to be vaccinated.
“But the focus now should be on getting the most vulnerable groups vaccinated, ” he said.
Sunway University school of medical and life sciences dean Prof Dr Abhi Veerakumarasivam said the commercialisation of Covid-19 vaccines can potentially increase supply and accelerate immunisation efforts.
However, Dr Abhi also expressed concerns that it would lead to unfair distribution and the further widening of the access gap between the haves and have-nots.
“There is still debate if the commercialisation of these vaccines or the gap between legal supply and demand of the vaccines pose a bigger black market risk.
“The fact is the Covid-19 black market exists. The identification of thousands of fake or counterfeit vaccine doses in China and South Africa is very disconcerting as they pose a significant public-health risk as well as wider social implications, ” he said.
Dr Abhi said if the government decides to allow the commercialisation of the vaccine, there needs to be robust governmental oversight in the monitoring and regulation of the entire process to protect the integrity of vaccine supply chains and the pricing.
He added that the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA) will also need to have a significant responsibility to continue to ensure that any vaccine made available in the country is approved only after robust and independently verified data on safety and efficacy is available.
“Ultimately, any decision regarding the commercialisation of Covid-19 vaccines must not compromise the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme’s target of vaccinating more than 80% of the population against the virus by March 2022, ” he said.
Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud said he was opposed to Covid-19 vaccines being sold on the private market.
“This is basically queue jumping disguised as a commercialisation or private sector initiative.
“The country needs to get enough supplies of Covid-19 vaccines and supply issues are reportedly causing problems even in countries that can pay for them, as pharmaceutical companies struggle to get vaccines manufactured quickly.
“Private vaccine procurement is simply going to make the situation worse by depriving the health authorities of the very same vaccine supplies, ” he said.
He added that by allowing private vaccine procurement, vulnerable groups that are most at risk of severe bouts of Covid-19 will not be able to get the vaccines early enough.
“They will be behind those whose wealth and privilege allow them to jump the queue.
“Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of our economy and the unequal effects of the pandemic on those least economically equipped to weather this storm.
“Already, the rich and the privileged are the ones least likely to suffer the health and economic effects of Covid-19, and commercialising the vaccination will simply exacerbate that inequity, ” he said.
Dr Awang Bulgiba, who is the head of the Independent Covid-19 Vaccination Advisory Committee, proposed that the vaccination programme be based on three underpinning principles.
These are: (i) maximising benefits and minimising harm to human wellbeing; (ii) promoting justice with equal respect for all persons; and (iii) mitigating vulnerabilities and inequalities.
Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia (APHM) president Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh said private hospitals have no intention of commercialising the vaccine or making profits, but they only want to assist the government in speeding up the vaccination process.
“The important thing right now is to vaccinate at a faster rate. The current rate now may not be enough to vaccinate everyone so quickly.
“So, for those who can afford it, they can get vaccinated earlier, ” he said.
Dr Kuljit added that those who pay to be vaccinated will clear the list from the government programme and open up their slots to others.
“There is no reason to worry it will deprive the vulnerable and frontliners. In fact, it will facilitate more to get vaccinated by the government.
“On the issue of global shortage, it’s a matter of time. Give us a date when we can procure, for example, June 1 onwards, and we can start planning for it.
“Manufacturers then will be able to supply and in the event there is no supply, it is fine as we can wait, ” he said.
Universiti Malaya expert virologist Prof Dr Sazaly Abu Bakar said private vaccination should not be denied to those who can afford it.
“With the private companies coming in, they can provide alternatives to those who are willing to pay.
“The government is fulfilling its responsibility to provide the rakyat and those who need it with the vaccine, but for those who can afford to pay, they should be able to do so through the proper channels, ” he said.