8 key questions on Singapore's planned vaccine roll-out

The Health Sciences Authority and the expert committee on Covid-19 vaccination have concluded the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective and safe. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Monday's press conference by the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 saw a range of questions asked on Singapore's planned vaccination roll-out. Clara Chong reports on some of the highlights.

Q: Why is the vaccination programme voluntary and not mandatory? How does the Government hope to encourage greater public acceptance of vaccination apart from getting it free?

A: Very few vaccinations are made mandatory, because the Government wants to respect people's choices, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said. But the task force hopes to encourage everyone to be vaccinated since the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) and the expert committee on Covid-19 vaccination have concluded the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective and safe.

The task force expects all Singaporeans will be able to get a Covid-19 vaccination before the end of 2021.

However, the Government will not force anyone to accept the vaccine, which is still new. The task force is still learning more about the disease as well as the vaccine, such as how effective it is, and what its side effects are. Long-term data is still being gathered, and as the task force studies the vaccine profile and its side effects, it is prudent for it to make recommendations, but not insist that every Singaporean take it up.

Singaporeans may also have a variety of different medical conditions that may require the task force to specifically match certain types of vaccines to those to ensure that safety is upheld, Mr Gan said.

To provide more information for people to make an informed choice, the task force will continue to engage them to clarify the status of vaccines, their benefits, and the possible experiences people may have as they come forward to be vaccinated.

"And we hope that this part of the education process will allow all of us then to make an informed decision and have confidence that vaccines are effective and safe," Mr Gan said.

Q: What happens if the take-up rate of vaccination is low? Is there a target take-up rate?

A: There is no specific target at the moment. The target is as high a take-up rate as possible, Mr Gan said. The Government will attempt to reach out to all eligible Singaporeans and local residents to encourage them to be vaccinated, and will enhance public education and outreach to encourage as many to sign up as possible.

Q: How will long-term pass holders be encouraged to get the jab?

A: Access will be very convenient, said Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng.

To make it so, the Government will enlist the help of medical centres and healthcare providers serving dormitories, medical centres located in some recreational centres, as well as community medical clinics that provide screening and testing to migrant workers.

Vaccinations will be offered to all migrant workers in a phased approach that will be made known in the coming weeks. The calibrated approach will also consider the needs of the larger population and the community.

Q: Will everyone get the Pfizer vaccine? Or will some people get the Sinovac vaccine from China with which Singapore also signed advance purchase agreements ? How do you decide who gets which one?

A: Currently, the HSA has authorised the use of only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. When more vaccines are authorised, they will be used.

Some vaccines may have certain limitations or criteria, and the task force will have to assess them individually to determine which is more suitable for which segment of the population, Mr Gan said.

The current recommendation is to offer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with priority for healthcare workers, front liners, as well as vulnerable patients who do not have any medical contraindications.

Q: Migrant workers accounted for the overwhelming majority of cases in Singapore. Are they currently being considered a priority or vulnerable group for the vaccine?

A: Based on the migrant worker population of about 300,000, some 100,000 of them are not immune. So the task force will prioritise this group of workers over their colleagues and the new workers coming in as restrictions are relaxed to allow more migrant workers.

Q: With allergy issues that have occurred in Britain, Britain has now issued an anaphylaxis warning on the Pfizer vaccine. Are there similar concerns here?

A: The task force is concerned about allergic reactions, said the Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak.

"And this is also a similar concern for any other vaccine that is available today for a variety of different conditions," Associate Professor Mak said.

The most severe allergic reaction would be anaphylaxis, which may result in breathing difficulties. In Britain, at least two individuals displayed features of a severe anaphylactic reaction.

Ms Margaret Keating receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Hamilton, western Scotland, on Dec 14, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

With this in mind, the HSA and the expert committee's recommendation is to not vaccinate individuals who have a history of severe allergic reactions or anaphylactic reactions.

Furthermore, all individuals receiving the vaccination must be observed for a short period of time afterwards to ensure 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. "We err on the side of safety," Prof Mak added.

Q: If the take-up rate for the vaccination is high, will certain safe distancing measures change for the people who have been vaccinated?

A: Though 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, Mr Gan said.

"So 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," Mr Gan said.

Hence, despite vaccination, all safe distancing measures must still continue to be observed. The task force 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," Education Minister Lawrence Wong added.

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Q: Once the vaccination plan is rolled out, will there be any changes to Singapore's testing strategy?

A: The task force has to take into account that more people will be vaccinated next year, look at the overall suite of measures, and make adjustments accordingly, Mr Wong said.

"For example, with vaccinations in place and if travellers can show proof and certification of vaccination, then the kind of test we administer might well vary, because we would then want to test to make sure that the person has antibodies in response to the vaccine," he noted.

Considering that more and more people will be vaccinated, Singapore will still need the full suite of other safeguards, but the types of tests that will be administered will have to vary. The testing regimen and protocols at the borders and for events, for instance, will have to be adjusted accordingly. The task force is working through all of these different settings now.

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