Vaccinating population against COVID-19 requires ‘considerable resources’, to be key focus in 2021: Gan Kim Yong

Vaccinating population against COVID-19 requires ‘considerable resources’, to be key focus in 2021: Gan Kim Yong

While healthcare workers are receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations, the authorities are readying clinics and vaccination centres for others to be immunised when their turn comes, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said in Parliament on Monday (Jan 4). The Government will also ramp up testing for high-risk groups and provide financial assistance to those who suffer serious side effects from the vaccination. Cheryl Goh reports. 

SINGAPORE: A national effort to vaccinate the Singapore population will need “considerable resources” to implement and will be one of the Government’s key focus areas in 2021, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in Parliament on Monday (Jan 4). 

Immunisation has already begun after Singapore received its first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines on Dec 21, with healthcare workers at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) becoming the first to receive their jabs on Dec 30.

More vaccines are expected to arrive and the Government has been encouraging all medically eligible residents to come forward and get vaccinated. 

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In his ministerial statement in Parliament, Mr Gan said that the last time Singapore conducted a vaccination exercise of this scale was in 1959, in response to an outbreak of smallpox. Slightly more than 1 million people were vaccinated then. 

“The scale of the current effort is larger, but we are also much better prepared. We started planning for this very early on,” said Mr Gan, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force dealing with the pandemic, along with Education Minister Lawrence Wong. 

Mr Gan said Singapore has put in place processes to meet the cold-chain logistics requirements of the vaccines, from delivery to receiving them at the airport, storage and transport to the vaccination sites. Some, like the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that are based on mRNA technology, require the vaccines to be deep-frozen. 

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While healthcare workers are receiving their vaccinations, the authorities are readying clinics and vaccination centres for others to be immunised when their turn comes, Mr Gan said. 

“Prior bookings will be necessary given the cold-chain requirements at the vaccination sites and multi-dose vials of the vaccines. It will also ensure operational efficiency and minimise individual wait times,” he said, adding that more information on how to make the booking will be provided later. 

The vaccine is free for all Singaporeans and long-term residents, including long-term work permit holders.

Singapore should make the most of the current situation, when the community cases are low, to get the population immunised, said the chairman of the Expert Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination. Everyone eligible should get vaccinated, said Associate Professor Benjamin Ong in an exclusive interview with CNA's Cheryl Goh.   

“We encourage everyone to come forward for your vaccination when your turn comes so that we can increase our coverage as soon as possible,” he said. 

“At the same time, we will test our systems thoroughly before ramping up to ensure that vaccination operations proceed smoothly and patient safety is not compromised.”

Some vaccines, such as Pfizer-BioNTech’s, will require two doses, 21 days apart, and it will take up to 14 more days after the second dose to achieve maximum protection against the virus.

FRONTLINE WORKERS TO GET VACCINATED FIRST

Singapore will prioritise vaccinations for groups that are most at risk, consistent with World Health Organization guidelines, Mr Gan stressed.

“As more vaccines are approved for use, we will adjust our vaccination programme, depending on the vaccine supply as well as the disease epidemiology at that point in time,” he said.

Besides workers in the healthcare sector, authorities will prioritise COVID-19 frontline workers as well as other essential workers, including swabbers hired by the Health Promotion Board and staff working at government quarantine facilities, community care facilities and at dedicated stay-home notice facilities.

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Vaccinations for the elderly and those at greater risk of severe disease from COVID-19 infection will start next month, beginning with seniors aged 70 and above. Next in line are those in jobs or settings where the risk of a super-spreading event is high, such as the construction, marine and process sector, including migrant workers, Mr Gan said.

Other Singaporeans and long-term residents who are medically eligible will come next. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women, those under the age of 16 and individuals whose immune systems are compromised.

In response to a supplementary question from Aljunied GRC MP Leon Perera on where the vaccines will be administered, Mr Gan said the Health Ministry will take into account accessibility and convenience when setting up vaccination sites.

They will include polyclinics, private clinics as well as vaccination centres, while mobile vaccination teams will also be set up for seniors at nursing homes and senior care centres.

"We have to bear in mind that this particular vaccine - Pfizer-BioNTech - is quite challenging to handle ... so it is not so easy to make it available conveniently at all the private clinics, so we will need to work with specific clinics, specific chains," he added. 

Answering questions from Members of Parliament about the number of doses of vaccines secured, Mr Gan said that the country will have enough vaccines for all Singaporeans and long-term residents in Singapore. However, he could not disclose the specific quantity ordered, due to “commercial sensitivities and confidentiality undertakings” in the advance purchase agreements signed with the vaccine manufacturers.

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Following the first shipment of 31 boxes of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the country is expecting more deliveries in the next few months, including from Moderna and Sinovac. 

MPs also asked about other vaccines that may be under review, such as one from AstraZeneca, but Mr Gan said he would not be able to share which vaccines are being evaluated although there were several candidates.

“The vaccines will arrive in Singapore in batches, given high global demand especially from countries with high rates of infection. Pharmaceutical companies will also need time to scale up vaccine production and distribution," he said in his ministerial statement.

"If all goes according to schedule, we will have enough vaccines for everyone by the third quarter of 2021."

Mr Gan warned that new infections will occur in Singapore from time to time, and the country continues to face the risk of new coronavirus clusters and outbreaks in Phase 3 of its reopening, which began on Dec 28.

“This will be the new normal for a long time to come; that is why we still need to keep up our multi-layered defence. In fact, we must further strengthen it as we continue our journey through Phase 3, and vaccination is a new line of defence we must put in place,” he said.

He urged everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and not wait, after Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC MP Alex Yam said that some elderly residents he spoke to indicated a preference for Sinovac - which uses traditional vaccine technology rather than the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

"With regard to Sinovac or any other vaccine that has not been approved, my advice is: Don't wait for them, because we do not know when they will be available, and we also do not know whether they will be approved at all," said Mr Gan.

On why senior public servants and politicians have yet to be vaccinated, Mr Gan said that they did not want to be seen to be "jumping the queue", and priority should be given to healthcare workers. He added that Professor Leo Yee Sin, who heads NCID, was among the first to roll up her sleeve for the vaccine. 

"When our time comes. I'm sure all my colleagues will be very happy to step forward to have to get vaccinated," Mr Gan said.

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Source: CNA/hm(hs)

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