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What Singaporeans Need To Know About COVID-19 Vaccines: How Safe And Effective Is It?

covid-19 vaccine

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced yesterday (December 14) that Singapore will enter Phase 3 of reopening on December 28.

Despite the easing of restrictions in a controlled manner, PM Lee warned that we should not let our guards down.

The pandemic is still raging and we might have to fight the battle against COVID-19 for “possibly a year or more.”

“One key factor is how soon COVID-19 vaccines become available to us,” he added.

According to PM Lee, the government has been working hard since early in the pandemic to secure access to the vaccines.

To date, more than 200 vaccine candidates were being developed, though not all would be successful.

“We have set aside more than S$1 billion. We placed multiple bets, to sign advance purchase agreements and make early down-payments for the most promising candidates, including Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Sinovac,” said PM Lee.

“We made arrangements with pharmaceutical companies to facilitate their clinical trials and drug development in Singapore and attracted a few to establish vaccine manufacturing capabilities here.”

He added that the local efforts to develop a vaccine can be seen as an “insurance” in case the global supply chain gets disrupted.

“This way, we built up a diversified portfolio of options to ensure that Singapore would be near the front of the queue for vaccines, and not last in line.”

Who Can Get Vaccinated?

Pfizer-BioNTech covid-19 vaccine
Image Credit: Reuters

The Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has officially approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for pandemic use.

The first shipment should arrive by the end of this month, making Singapore one of the first countries in the world to obtain this vaccine.

“We also expect other vaccines to arrive in Singapore in the coming months. If all goes according to plan, we will have enough vaccines for everyone in Singapore by the third quarter of 2021,” said PM Lee.

He added that the vaccinations will be made free for all Singaporeans and long-term residents.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has set up a committee of doctors and experts to recommend a vaccination strategy, and they have proposed that the entire adult population should be vaccinated, but to make vaccinations voluntary.

First priority will be given to those who are at greatest risk: healthcare workers and frontline personnel, as well as the elderly and vulnerable.

The vaccines will then be progressively be issued to the rest of the population, and to cover everyone who wants a vaccination by the end of next year.

How Safe And Effective Is It?

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was developed by American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its partner, German firm BioNTech, in less than a year since the coronavirus first emerged.

About 44,000 people have taken part in the clinical trials, and preliminary results in November suggested that the vaccine was more than 90 per cent effective — a very high figure among vaccines.

Pfizer then published the final results from the trials on its website, showing that the vaccine had a 95 per cent level of efficacy in preventing Covid-19, 28 days after the first dosage is given.

This means that a week after a person gets the second dose, there is a 95 per cent chance that the vaccine will work if the person has not been infected by COVID-19 before.

Additionally, the HSA and the expert committee on Covid-19 vaccination have concluded that the vaccine has met the required safety, efficacy and quality standards, and that its benefits outweigh the known risks.

In fact, PM Lee and colleagues will undergo early vaccinations to prove that the vaccines are safe, especially for seniors.

However, the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce said that is still learning more about the virus as well as the vaccine, such as the extent of its effectiveness and its possible side effects.

health minister gan kim yong singapore
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong / Image Credit: MCI

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that since Singaporeans have a variety of different medical conditions, the taskforce may have to specifically match certain types of vaccines to different conditions to ensure safety.

For instance, Britain has issued an anaphylaxis warning on the Pfizer vaccine following allergy reactions.

Health Ministry’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak said that the taskforce shares the same concerns on allergy reactions. The most severe of which is anaphylaxis, which may result in breathing difficulties.

Therefore, individuals who have a history of severe allergic reactions or anaphylactic reactions are not recommended to be vaccinated.

Furthermore, all those who are vaccinated must be observed for a short period of time to ensure that they do not have the immediate signs of an allergic reaction.

If an individual has an allergic reaction after that first dose is given, the recommendation is to not give the second dose, said Prof Mak.

Moving forward, the taskforce will continue to educate the public on the status of vaccines, their benefits, and the possible experiences people may encounter to help them make an informed decision.

Currently, more data is needed to understand how the vaccine will affect pregnant women, those under 16, and people who are immuno-compromised.

Regardless, as long-term data is still being gathered, the taskforce feels that it is prudent for it to make mere recommendations.

Therefore, the vaccinations will be done on a voluntary basis and people won’t be forced to accept the vaccine, which is still new.

Which Other Vaccines Will Be Available?

PM Lee has listed Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Sinovac as some of the “promising candidates”.

covid-19 vaccines table
Overview of COVID-19 vaccines / Image Credit: Vulcan Post

Moderna announced today (December 15) that it has concluded an agreement with MOH to supply its COVID-19 vaccine, called mRNA-1273, to Singapore.

The agreement will “support ongoing efforts to secure access to a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine for the people of Singapore”, said the biotechnology company.

The volume of doses and financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

Data from a Phase 3 study involving 30,000 participants in the US demonstrated efficacy of 94.1 per cent against COVID-19 and a 100 per cent success rate in preventing severe cases.

Moderna has said there were no serious safety concerns with mRNA-1273.

However, the most common side effects were fatigue, injection site redness and pain, headache and body aches, which increased after the second dose albeit short-lived.

The company plans to be able to deliver 500 million to 1 billion doses of the vaccine a year from 2021. 

Does Being Vaccinated Mean You Will Be Immune To COVID-19?

Mr Gan stressed that although the vaccine will protect the person who has received it, there is still no clear evidence that it can protect against the virus being transmitted to another person.

“We cannot assume that once you’re vaccinated, you are not likely to transmit the virus to any other person and you can take off your mask and do whatever you want,” he added.

Hence, despite vaccination, all safe distancing and safety measures must still continue to be observed. The taskforce will monitor the development in this area and adjust the measures progressively over time.

“Please understand a vaccine is not a ticket to freedom to do anything you want,” chimed in Education Minister Lawrence Wong.

Which Other Countries Are Giving Vaccines?

uk covid-19 vaccine elderly
Image Credit: AP

The UK was the first to start vaccinating its citizens and has since been offering the Pfizer-BioNTech jab to frontline healthcare workers and elders.

It is prioritising vaccination for all people above the age of 50 as well as younger adults with underlying health conditions, before the rest of the population gets the jab.

In the US, the first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech began to roll out on December 13. Healthcare workers and older residents of long-term care homes will be first in line.

According to US authorities, more than 100 million people, or about 30 per cent of the US population, could be immunised by the end of March.

Meanwhile, a vaccine developed by China’s SinoPharm has an 86 per cent efficacy rate based on the outcomes of trials.

In November, it is reported that almost a million people in China had taken the vaccine in its testing phase.

Indonesia, which is facing a mounting Covid-19 death toll, received 1.3 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine made by China’s Sinovac, with another 1.8 million set to arrive next month.

However, Sinovac said that it is not yet able to determine the efficacy of the vaccine, which was at odds with a statement by its Indonesian partner Bio Farma that said interim data showed 97 per cent efficacy.

The Vaccine Is Like A “Light At The End Of The Tunnel”

The vaccines will undoubtedly support our recovery in more ways than one.

Although the vaccine logistics can be quite hassling, PM Lee trusts that Singapore has a strong ecosystem for cargo handling.

Leading global logistics companies like DHL, UPS and FedEx are based here; and Singapore International Airlines and Changi Airport’s ground handling partners are all certified to handle and transport pharmaceutical supplies.

“We are now gearing ourselves up to handle large volumes of vaccine shipments into and through Singapore, to help win the global fight against COVID-19,” said PM Lee.

“We did not get here overnight. It took us years of investment and planning, building a business-friendly climate and expanding our air links around the world. These long-term investments are now paying dividends.”

He further commented that the COVID-19 situation in Singapore has now stabilised and with the availability of vaccines, “we can see light at the end of the tunnel.”

“As vaccinations become widespread not only in Singapore, but also in our region and the world, we can look forward to resuming more normal lives,” said PM Lee.

“Let us keep up our efforts in this final stretch, to cross the finish line together, and complete our mission to defeat COVID-19.”

Featured Image Credit: Dado Ruvic via Reuters

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(UEN 201431998C.)

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