SINGAPORE: Individuals who choose not to take the COVID-19 vaccine may need to go through “more frequent testing”, said Minister for Education Lawrence Wong on Thursday (Jan 7).
In an interview on CNA’s Talking Point, the co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force spoke of "tangible benefits" for those who choose to get vaccine shots.
“It may well be, if the data validates all the hypotheses, that transmission risk can be significantly reduced. It may well be that travellers coming back need not serve SHN (stay-home notice) or will serve a shorter SHN. So those will be the benefits of getting a vaccination besides the fact that you are protecting yourself and your loved ones,” he added.
“There will be these tangible benefits and those who choose not to be vaccinated, well, then you have to live with more frequent tests, you have to live with quarantine, you have to live with all of these other additional requirements.”
EARLY BETS TO SECURE VACCINES
Mr Wong also explained why the vaccine made by the Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac was picked as one of the three vaccines to be used in Singapore.
The vaccine is 78 per cent effective in protecting against the coronavirus, according to the results of a study announced on Thursday by Brazilian state health officials. More than 12,000 health workers in Brazil participated in the study.
The Government convened an expert panel to look at making early purchases of vaccines “as early as April”, Mr Wong said.
“We have to make early bets in order for Singapore to be near the front of the queue for vaccines. And that's what is happening today.”
At the time, there was no clinical data or “full-fledged information” available from any vaccine company, said Mr Wong.
READ: From shortlisting promising candidates to negotiations: How Singapore procured its first COVID-19 vaccine shipment
With only "very early stage clinical information" available, the committee and experts narrowed down the selections to 35 vaccine candidates. They eventually decided on the three vaccines - Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac - based on safety and effectiveness based on the preliminary data that was available then, he added.
“And that's the three that we have made advanced purchases for, with the aim of building a diversified portfolio of vaccines that will be safe and effective for use in Singapore,” said Mr Wong.
When asked by Talking Point host Steve Chia if this approach by Singapore could be characterised as "hedging (its) chances", Mr Wong replied: "Very much so."
According to the Economic Development Board (EDB), the vaccine panel made its first advance purchase agreement with Moderna in June, securing it with a downpayment. In August, it bought the Sinovac vaccine and was in advance talks with Pfizer-BioNTech.
Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority (HSA) eventually approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine first. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in a televised address on Dec 15, 2020 that the first shipment would arrive by the end of December, with other vaccines expected in the coming months.
The first doses of the vaccines were rolled out to staff at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) on Dec 30, 2020.
The panel intends to continue to see whether it can make further purchases to add to the vaccine portfolio, said Mr Wong.
“That's our overall approach. It's not to make a single bet, we know that we've made some early bets, some may turn out positive as I think Pfizer has now been authorised, Moderna looks like it's going to be, it has been approved in America,” he added.
“We are looking at the data, we will await that data full data from Sinovac and then the process will continue for other vaccine candidates.”
The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use the new messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, while Sinovac is a traditional inactivated virus vaccine.
mRNA vaccines teach our cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies, said director of communicable diseases at the Ministry of Health (MOH) Associate Professor Vernon Lee. This is different from traditional vaccines that put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies.
“This is basically the key - the actual mRNA degrades very quickly in the body, so body temperature will only remain for about 48 hours. And thereafter, there's no additional component of the vaccine that remains in the individual,” added Assoc Prof Lee, who was also speaking on Talking Point.
Although the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one approved so far, as additional vaccines come onboard, there will be some vaccines that can or cannot be used in certain subpopulations, he added.
For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine cannot be used in people who have severe allergic reactions or a history of anaphylaxis, said Assoc Prof Lee. For now, children under 16, pregnant women and individuals who are severely immunocompromised are also excluded from using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
“Other vaccines might be able to be used in different populations. So we need to wait for more information, and it is which vaccine is more ... applicable or relevant to that particular population if it's offered, we will encourage people to get that vaccine,” he added.
READ:Vaccinating population against COVID-19 requires ‘considerable resources’, to be key focus in 2021: Gan Kim Yong
The third guest on Talking Point, Associate Professor Benjamin Ong, senior vice president (Health Education & Resources) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the data for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is “most complete”, and experts are “confident enough” to recommend its use in Singapore’s setting.
CHOICE OF VACCINE
On the subject of whether people would be allowed to choose their vaccine, Mr Wong said that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines worked similarly, and efficacy rates from evidence around the world were “all about the same”.
“So really, there's not much to differentiate between these two vaccines. I think at this point in time, we have Pfizer only, there's nothing to choose from. So let's go with Pfizer, get people vaccinated on the Pfizer vaccine,” he added.
“If later on other vaccines are authorised, be it Moderna or Sinovac, then we have to think about whether choice may be extended. Or perhaps some vaccines work better for certain sub-segments of the population, and then we might allocate vaccines differently as well.”
When asked about the new strain of COVID-19 that surfaced after the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were approved around the world, Assoc Profs Ong and Lee said mutations occur “all the time”, and are part of "natural evolution”.
Prof Lee likened the mutations to a car getting a different licence plate or colour.
“The same make, same model, different licence plate, we see many of them all around the time. And sometimes you might have a car with new tires, it might be a bit more efficient, move faster, and so on, but it's still the same make,” he added.
“At this point, there's no evidence that it (the virus) has changed to another make, another model, another brand. And we, of course, will be looking out for different strains, different variants that occur all the time.”
From the mutations that have been studied so far, it seems like the vaccines “probably would still work”, said Assoc Prof Ong, adding that this is being actively tested.
“The areas that pertain to the spike protein, for example, are conserved. So from the basic scientific principles, it should still work. And we will know very soon because more than two, three million people now in the UK in the US have received a vaccine. And if it is not going to work, in the next few weeks to months, we will know,” he said.
The variants that have been reported are only those that have been detected, and there may be others that have yet to surface, said Assoc Prof Lee.
“Actually what's important is in addition to the vaccine, we have a very strong border, you know, control regime, plus all the same management measures wearing of masks or contact tracing,” he added.
UNVACCINATED INDIVIDUALS STILL SUSCEPTIBLE
Acknowledging that many people hope to return to a pre-pandemic normal, Mr Wong said that even in a post-COVID-19 world, there would be pandemics with more virulent diseases that arise in the future.
“I think rather than thinking about let’s go back to life before COVID, I think we should be thinking now about what are the things that we have done during this period that really ought to be permanently part of our new daily routines,” he added.
“And how can we raise our levels of defences, our levels of protection, our levels of hygiene so that we can be more prepared and more resilient in the future?”
Assoc Prof Lee also stressed that individuals who do not get vaccinated are “still susceptible” to being infected with COVID-19.
“Even if we reach that sort of herd immunity or collective protection level, it does not mean that there will be no cases and that’s the same for all other infectious diseases. And the risk of cases occurring in Singapore is not just what we do here but what’s happening in the rest of the world,” he said, adding that an open economy, travel and trade would result in imported cases.
“If we are not vaccinated, every single individual who is not vaccinated, is another naive susceptible individual who then can get infected by those diseases. To protect yourself, you should get vaccinated and then there’s the other benefit of protecting your loved ones and those around you,” said Assoc Prof Lee.
“It is very important for that reason because even if we have a high vaccination coverage, it does not mean no disease. It is not possible to wipe COVID-19 from the face of the earth. We’re going to see this recurring from time to time, so it is important for that personal protection reason.”