Don’t let guard down yet

FINALLY, there is light at the end of the tunnel in the fight against Covid-19, which has been wreaking havoc throughout the world since the beginning of 2020.

On Nov 9, Pfizer announced that the preliminary result of the vaccine it was developing with German partner BioNTech showed it was 90% effective at protecting people against Covid-19.

This was followed two days later by an announcement from the Russian sovereign wealth fund which said that according to interim trial results, the country’s Sputnik V vaccine is 92% effective.

On Nov 16, American biotech firm Moderna revealed that interim data from the vaccine it was developing showed a 94.5% effectiveness in preventing Covid-19 infection.

News that Covid-19 vaccines are imminent do warrant celebrating, but it is still too early to let our guard down nonetheless.

The government has made arrangements to procure vaccines through the Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (Covax), but it faces many challenges along the way.

For example, the Covax facility would allow 10% of the country’s population to access the vaccine, with priority given to frontliners such as healthcare, security and defence personnel, and high-risk individuals like those with co-morbid medical conditions and senior citizens.

According to the World Health Organisation, at least 60% to 70% of the population would need to be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity and break the Covid-19 transmission chain. This means 19.6 million to 22.9 million Malaysians would need to be vaccinated before life can revert to the pre-Covid-19 era.

The government aims to kick-start vaccination by the first quarter of 2021. But how long would it take to immunise the numbers required to break the transmission chain?

Would businesses in the private sector such as tourism be given the choice to purchase vaccines for their employees?

Upon the announcement of the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the European Union signed a contract to procure 200 million doses, plus an option to request up to a further 100 million. Another 100 million doses were secured by the United States.

However, the production capacity of Pfizer/BioNtech would be only up to 50 million doses in 2020, and is estimated to be 1.3 billion by the end of 2021. Will Malaysia be able to compete in procuring the limited supply of vaccines with the high international demand?

Storage, transport and distribution of the vaccines will also be challenging. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for example, needs an ultra-low temperature of -80°C. Do we have the technology and equipment to store, transport and distribute it to rural communities?

The development of vaccines against Covid-19 is a promising sign that life would revert back to normal, but it will take time. Meanwhile, the best strategy for now is to continue practising the 3Ws (Wash hands, Wear Mask and Warn others) and 3Cs (Avoid Crowded places; Confined spaces; Close conversations).

DR GAN RICK KYE , Perdana Fellow in the Health Ministry

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