Malaysia debates allowing queue-jumping by those willing to pay for vaccinations

Malaysia kicked off its mass vaccination programme on Feb 24, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Health experts are divided over whether Malaysia's private healthcare sector should be allowed to buy Covid-19 vaccines for their clients.

Some argued that this would speed up the process of achieving herd immunity but others say this would promote queue-jumping by the privileged, especially with global vaccine stocks scarce now.

Private hospitals have asked the government to let them buy the vaccines and inoculate those willing to pay for the service rather than wait in a long queue with other Malaysians.

Malaysian Medical Association president Subramaniam Muniandy said private vaccine procurement should only take place after high-risk groups have been vaccinated, especially as current vaccine stocks are scarce.

"The focus now should be on vaccinating front-liners and other high-risk groups under phases one and two of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme.

"Only when these high-risk groups in the population are vaccinated and when there is more than enough supply of the vaccines should private healthcare procurement and administration of vaccines be allowed.

"There is a global shortage of vaccines as many countries have now started inoculating their populations," he said.

Said the chief of Public Services and Complaints Department of the Malaysian Chinese Association, Mr Michael Chong: "There are 9,000 private clinics and hospitals across the country. Many people don't want to wait and they have the money to pay," he said.

Datuk Seri Chong said if the government is concerned about profiteering, it can set out rules and prices for the inoculation service.

Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia president Kuljit Singh said private hospitals have no intention of commercialising the vaccine or making profits, but are keen to speed up the vaccination process.

"The current rate now may not be enough to vaccinate everyone so quickly.

"So, for those who can afford it, they can get vaccinated earlier," he said.

Penang's Island Hospital chief operating officer Stephanie Lee said the hospital has received many requests from patients for the vaccine.

"As we (Malaysia) are not covering the full spectrum of the general public when it comes to vaccinations right now, there are some patients who want to be in the queue and are willing to pay for it," she said.

Sunway University's School of Medical and Life Sciences dean, Professor Dr Abhi Veerakumarasivam, said the commercialisation of Covid-19 vaccines could potentially increase supply and accelerate immunisation efforts.

But Dr Abhi also expressed concerns that it would lead to unfair distribution and the further widening of the access gap between the haves and have-nots.

Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud said he is opposed to Covid-19 vaccines being sold on the private market.

"This is basically queue-jumping disguised as a commercialisation or private sector initiative," he said, adding: "Private vaccine procurement is simply going to make the situation worse by depriving the health authorities of the very same vaccine supplies."

Malaysia kicked off its mass vaccination programme on Feb 24.

There are three phases to the immunisation programme, with front-liners being vaccinated in the first phase from February to April.

The second phase runs from April to August this year, with high-risk groups and senior citizens aged 60 and above being vaccinated.

The rest of the Malaysian population aged 18 years and above will be vaccinated in the third phase, which is from May 2021 to February 2022.

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