COVID-19: Government accepts committee's recommendations on vaccine strategy, to begin vaccinating healthcare workers from Dec 30

COVID-19: Government accepts committee's recommendations on vaccine strategy, to begin vaccinating healthcare workers from Dec 30

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a medical syringe and a small bottle labeled "Coronavirus COVID-19 V
A woman holds a small bottle and a medical syringe in this illustration taken Oct 30, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic)

SINGAPORE: The Government has accepted in full the recommendations of the Expert Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination on the overall vaccination strategy of Singapore, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Sunday (Dec 27).

Healthcare workers will be vaccinated first starting Dec 30, beginning with those at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID). Vaccinations will subsequently roll out to more healthcare institutions in the coming weeks. 

MOH said public healthcare institutions – including acute hospitals, community hospitals and polyclinics – as well as private hospitals, will progressively arrange for their staff members to be vaccinated within their respective premises.

The health ministry added that it aims to begin vaccinating the elderly, starting with those aged 70 years and above, from February next year. 

"Thereafter we will vaccinate other Singaporeans and long-term residents who are medically eligible for vaccination. More details will be shared in due course," said MOH. 

The health ministry said comprehensive vaccination coverage in the population will ensure that Singapore is protected from COVID-19. This will also indirectly protect those who cannot be vaccinated due to medical reasons.

“In the longer term, this will enable us to re-open further both as a society and economy, and expedite our recovery from the pandemic. While COVID-19 vaccination will be voluntary, we strongly encourage everyone who is medically eligible for vaccination to get vaccinated when the vaccine is offered,” said MOH.

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

READ: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine approved by Singapore, first shipment expected by end-December

While the current number of cases in the community remains low, MOH added that the risk for further importation of COVID-19 and community spread will increase as Singapore moves into Phase 3 and given the global COVID-19 situation.

“This is especially important in the face of reports surfacing globally about more transmissible strains.”

MOH said that vaccination is “not a silver bullet that can end the pandemic immediately” but that it is a key enabler to getting Singapore back to a “safer state of affairs”.

“It will complement other existing key enablers – safe management measures, testing and contact tracing – which will continue to be necessary in helping us to mitigate any spread and keep community transmission low.”

The health ministry also said that Singaporeans should continue to remain vigilant and disciplined in the fight against COVID-19 by observing safe distancing and safe management measures. They should also wear a mask when out in public.  

The Expert Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination, which submitted its recommendations on Thursday, highlighted that two main groups should be prioritised for vaccination using the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine - those at high risk of being infected with COVID-19 and those who are most vulnerable to severe disease and complications if they fall ill with the coronavirus.

The prioritisation of these groups is in view of the limited supply of vaccines, the current disease epidemiology and public health considerations, said the committee in a press release.

Those at high risk of being infected with COVID-19 include healthcare workers and workers at the frontline of Singapore’s COVID-19 response.

“There is a duty to protect these workers who place themselves at higher risk of infection in the course of caring for our population, and to ensure the continued effective functioning of our healthcare system and our national systems for preventing and containing epidemic spread,” said the committee.

PRIORITISE THOSE VULNERABLE TO DISEASE, COMPLICATIONS

Individuals who are most vulnerable to severe disease and complications if they fall ill with COVID-19 include the elderly and those with vascular medical comorbidities.

Even within the older age groups, the committee said that COVID-19 patients aged 70 years and above have worse health outcomes than those aged 60 to 69 years old. 

Where vaccine supply is limited, the Expert Committee recommended conducting vaccinations for those aged 70 years and above first, followed by individuals aged 60 to 69 years.

The Expert Committee also recommended that about 5 per cent of the available vaccine stock at any given point in time be set aside for specific groups of people who are "of critical importance to the functioning of Singapore".

READ: First shipment of COVID-19 vaccines arrives in Singapore

Such individuals could include personnel involved in ensuring that Singapore’s water, utilities and other nationally essential services are not disrupted. This is separate from the prioritisation of population subgroups by public health considerations, to ensure that Singapore would be able to continue to function effectively amidst a local outbreak situation.

The Expert Committee said the detailed identification of these groups will be decided by the Government.

Ongoing public health measures such as safe distancing, mask wearing and good hand hygiene should also continue to be practised until a significant proportion of the population is vaccinated and more data is available on the vaccine’s duration of protection and its ability to generate a response in the body to prevent infection from the outset, said the committee.

READ: Don't focus on herd immunity, vaccination should be comprehensive: COVID-19 panel expert

Expert Committee chairperson Associate Professor Benjamin Ong said the recommendations were made following “careful assessment and deliberation of the available clinical data”.

“While Singapore currently has a low rate of local transmission of COVID-19, we remain vulnerable to the threat of a surge in cases. As such, it is important that we achieve as comprehensive a coverage of COVID-19 vaccination as possible across the entire population.

"We strongly encourage all persons who are medically eligible to be vaccinated when the vaccine is made available to them,” he added.

ACHIEVE AS HIGH A LEVEL OF POPULATION COVERAGE AS POSSIBLE

As outlined in the committee’s full recommendation to the Government, the “ultimate goal” of Singapore’s vaccination strategy against COVID-19 is to achieve as high a level of population coverage as possible.

The committee said this approach protects the maximum number of individuals possible, and will markedly reduce the overall proportion of persons susceptible to the disease and the likelihood of uncontrolled chains of transmission.

WATCH: Everyone eligible for COVID-19 vaccine in Singapore should get vaccinated, says Expert Committee chair

“A high vaccination coverage in the population also indirectly protects others who may not be suitable for vaccination yet. When vaccines become more widely available, everyone residing in Singapore who is medically eligible for vaccination should be vaccinated, although vaccination should remain voluntary,” it added.

PFIZER-BIONTECH VACCINE MEETS SAFETY STANDARDS

The Expert Committee said it has independently reviewed the clinical data on the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, and concurs with the indications for the interim authorisation granted by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) for use of the vaccine in Singapore under the Pandemic Special Access Route (PSAR).

The Committee has assessed that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is suitable for use in persons aged 16 years old and older in Singapore for the prevention of COVID-19.

READ: Data on Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine 'robustly and thoroughly reviewed', says HSA

In assessing the suitability of vaccine candidates for specific population groups, the Expert Committee took into consideration four key criteria – vaccine safety, vaccine efficacy, vaccine tolerability and data adequacy of clinical trials.

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has demonstrated a high vaccine efficacy of 95 per cent and its safety profile is consistent with the high standards set for other registered vaccines used in immunisation against other diseases, said the committee.

Although the benefits of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine outweigh the known risks, the committee said it recognises that continued monitoring will be needed. 

"Pfizer-BioNTech will also be continuing their study of vaccine safety in certain subpopulations, such as pregnant women and children. HSA requires continued submission of updated data by Pfizer-BioNTech as they become available. 

"Until more information is available, pregnant women and those under the age of 16 years should not receive the vaccine. It is also not recommended yet for immunocompromised individuals until further data is accrued," said the committee.

READ: COVID-19 vaccine is permissible for Muslim use, preservation of life is key consideration: MUIS

As information on more vaccines becomes available, the Expert Committee said it will assess and make further recommendations on the subsequent population groups to be vaccinated.

It will also continue to monitor and review the use of COVID-19 vaccines in Singapore as more data become available over time.

The Expert Committee on COVID-19 vaccination was convened by the Ministry of Health (MOH) in October to make recommendations to the Government on Singapore’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy.

The members of the committee are:

MOH Expert Committee on COVID-19 vaccine

As of Sunday, Singapore has reported a total of 58,524 COVID-19 cases, with 29 fatalities from the disease.

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Source: CNA/zl(hs)

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