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'Important' that side effects from COVID-19 vaccines are viewed in the 'right context': Expert committee chairman

'Important' that side effects from COVID-19 vaccines are viewed in the 'right context': Expert committee chairman

FILE PHOTO: A medical worker prepares to dilute a vial of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination center in Singapore March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

SINGAPORE: It is important that proper context and information are presented when it comes to coronavirus vaccines, so that members of the public can make the right decisions, said the chairman of Singapore’s expert committee on COVID-19 vaccination.

“I fear that if people don't actually see the right context, and actually don't think carefully about the decision they ought to make, then we will have an outcome that we will find difficult to live with in the future,” said Associate Professor Benjamin Ong in an interview with CNA on Monday (Jun 28).

Assoc Prof Ong’s comments came a day after the expert committee issued a statement saying the benefits of receiving the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine continue to outweigh the risks of vaccination.

The expert committee was responding to an open letter on social media by a group of doctors that called for a halt in the COVID-19 vaccinations of young Singaporeans, over fears that mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines may be associated with a small risk of heart inflammation in young men.

The open letter was the latest in a series of messages on social media discouraging Singaporeans from getting vaccinated using mRNA-based vaccines. Singapore uses Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for its national vaccination programme, which are both mRNA-based vaccines.

The Big Read: Conspiracy theories, scientific misinterpretations, plain ignorance abound in COVID-19 infodemic

Assoc Prof Ong said that Singapore will not be able to take advantage of its access to effective COVID-19 vaccines if people react to “every alarmist sort of viewpoint that comes up”.

“I want to put it in context for all of us to also bear in mind - right now we are being impacted by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, of COVID-19,” he said.

“We know very clearly that this Delta variant is much more infectious, it's clearly involving younger individuals and you can see that from our reports that have come up. These young people that have been impacted involve both adolescents as well as children.

“Also within this particular age group, we have very limited active treatment options that we can apply.”

Assoc Prof Ong warned of further disruptions due to COVID-19 if young Singaporeans did not get vaccinated.

“As it is right now, there are disruptions to school activities, school closures, CCA is significantly impacted. We've had to seriously adjust our examinations just to cope with this. And the best way in which we can get out of this, is to proceed to get vaccinated if we are eligible,” he said.


The latest open letter cited reports of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) investigations into the death of a 13-year-old boy after being vaccinated with the second dose of an mRNA vaccine.

It claimed that the boy died from heart failure and highlighted recent international reports of the association between myocarditis and the second dose of the mRNA vaccines in young men.

The committee said earlier on Monday the news report cited by the doctors "did not state death from heart failure as alleged."

“I think one needs to bear in mind that they are a very small minority,” said Assoc Prof Ong, referring to the doctors behind the open letter.

“Majority of my colleagues probably will look at the information in a very different way from a small number that have actually raised this particular petition. And unfortunately, if you don't look into the details of how they've actually presented the case, you might easily get misled.”

Assoc Prof Ong noted that the United States, which has given close to 400 million vaccine doses, saw just about 1,226 cases of myocarditis, which is more common in young males and was due to many different causes. Most cases were mild and recovered quickly with minimal medical intervention.

The US also saw more than 4 million children infected with COVID-19, of whom 17,000 have been hospitalised and more than 300 have died.

READ: US FDA adds warning about rare heart inflammation to Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna COVID-19 vaccines

“To put it in the right context, if they give one million second doses of COVID-19 vaccination, they have a very good chance of preventing … 6,000 cases, more than 200 admissions to hospital, 70 over ICU cases and at least two deaths in that particular context,” said Assoc Prof Ong.

“It's important to actually realise that the impact of vaccination in actually improving outcomes is very significant compared to the much smaller risk of a rare side effect that can occur. In that same sort of setting it's estimated that they might see anything between 50 to 70 cases of myocarditis as well, in that context, per se.”

Despite the risk of myocarditis, the CDC agreed that the benefits far outweigh the risks of continuing with mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccination, which was also endorsed by the American Heart Association and the Academy of Pediatrics.

Singapore, which has administered about five million vaccine doses, saw only six cases of myocarditis or pericarditis thus far. “Within the Singapore setting we've actually seen very rare occurrences of morbidities,” said Assoc Prof Ong.

“It's actually important for us to realise that the impact of the news that we're actually hearing is actually not significant per se and the vast majority of my colleagues do not view it the same way as this small number do.”

He reiterated the expert committee’s earlier advice that those vaccinated should avoid strenuous physical activity for one week after their second dose and be alert for symptoms of myocarditis or pericarditis that might occur.

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Source: CNA/ec(rw)


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