KUALA LUMPUR - Desperate to get their hands on Covid-19 vaccines, several Malaysian states have moved to procure their own supplies, much to the dismay of the federal government.
This comes as cases continue to soar in the country, with the number of daily infections hitting another record of 6,075 on Wednesday (May 19).
Coordinating Minister for Immunisation Khairy Jamaluddin on Wednesday said that one of the states, opposition-led Penang, had been duped by a "bogus" offer of a donation of vaccine doses from a private company, after the state government claimed that the federal authorities were blocking the donation.
"This offer is false. This is a scam. This is bogus," Mr Khairy said, brandishing a letter written by a Malaysian businessman based in Sabah, Mr Yong Chee Kong, addressed to Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow in February.
In the letter, Mr Yong, who claimed to be the managing director of a company in Hong Kong, said that he would like to donate two million doses of China's Sinovac vaccine to the state.
Mr Chow on Tuesday pleaded with the federal government not to block the donation, after the Health Ministry rejected the state's request to accept it as the Sinovac vaccine had yet to receive approval from Malaysia's pharmaceutical regulatory agency, the NPRA, in February. Approval came in March.
Mr Khairy urged Penang to "not politicise" the national immunisation efforts, adding that he was willing to help any states procure their own vaccines if such offers were valid.
Other states are also pushing to secure their own vaccine stocks.
Selangor, which is also led by the opposition Pakatan Harapan and is the country's most populous as well as most industrialised state, has announced that that it had agreed to procure 2.5 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, without disclosing its manufacturer, while Sarawak said it would buy one million doses of the Sinovac vaccine.
Selangor has also opened a register in its own contact-tracing app, Selangkah, to allow private companies to indicate interest in paying for their employees to be vaccinated from stocks procured by the state.
Mr Khairy, in the press conference on Wednesday, insisted that the national immunisation programme - which aims to inoculate all Malaysian residents, including migrants and refugees, for free - would still be the quickest way to be vaccinated for all.
"The priority (of vaccine supply) remains for the national immunisation programme," Mr Khairy said. He said even if companies or individuals paid for it, such as the one offered by Selangor, chances are that they were likely to be vaccinated later.
Mr Khairy said the federal government would have to receive all 12 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine that it had ordered first before any state could receive them.
Malaysia's Sinovac supply will come via local pharmaceutical company Pharmaniaga, which will distribute it locally.
Mr Khairy said that he understood that Malaysians were eager to be vaccinated following the dramatic surge in cases and record deaths in recent weeks. He insisted that the country was still on track to complete inoculating 80 per cent of its adult population by the end of the year.
"From June onwards, the pace of our vaccination will pick up," Mr Khairy said, as the bulk of vaccine supply ordered by the country begins to arrive.
Malaysia so far has approved three vaccines, although only two of them are being used in the national vaccination programme - the Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac vaccines. It has also procured the AstraZeneca vaccine, but is offering this on an opt-in basis for everyone.
The country is also considering approving Russia's Sputnik V vaccine while the Moderna one from the United States is expected to be made part of the roll-out of the vaccination programme by private hospitals in the latter part of this year.
Malaysia is currently under lockdown - its third from early 2020 - and this will last until June 7.