Groundwork for vaccination

By Dr Mark Cheong Wing Loong
School of Pharmacy 

The world is collectively holding its breath for the COVID-19 vaccine. It is estimated that between 85% and 90% of the population will need to be vaccinated to end the COVID-19 pandemic and for normal life to resume. Progress on the development of a vaccine has been encouraging. According to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, 73 vaccine candidates are being explored, while five have already entered clinical trials.

While it is true that a vaccine cannot come soon enough, it is also vital that Malaysia spends this time to prepare for mass vaccination of the public when it becomes available. To do so, the government must ensure that the vaccine is available, accessible and does not fall victim to misinformation.

There is a legitimate concern that Covid-19 vaccines may go to the highest bidder unless sufficient global diplomatic and advocacy efforts are made to ensure equal distribution to all. Malaysia, therefore, needs to work with other low- and middle-income countries to ensure that firm rules are set on intellectual property rights, pricing, supply and manufacturing of the vaccine. International collaboration rather than nationalistic competition is important here. These efforts will ensure that the vaccine will be affordable enough for the government to secure a sufficient supply for its population.

In the longer term, Malaysia will also have to consider mobilising its local drug manufacturing capabilities through public-private partnerships to produce affordable vaccines. The intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines must facilitate rather than prevent this.

Malaysia also needs to lay the groundwork to ensure the public’s ability to access the vaccine. There are two aspects to accessibility that we have to prepare for. The first is logistics. Public healthcare officials need to learn from the challenges involved in conducting screening tests and the distribution of masks to the public to develop a strategy for mass vaccination. Partnerships with the private healthcare sector, especially primary care clinics and pharmacies, will be vital to ensure coverage of the entire population. Community-based and mobile healthcare providers should also be engaged to reach people who are unable to leave their homes easily.

The second aspect is the affordability of the vaccine. The cost of vaccinating the entire population must be considered as a prerequisite investment to restart the Malaysian economy and also protect public health. A public-private partnership also needs to be worked out where the vaccine can be provided to the public for free, with only minimal costs of administration and logistics to be borne by the government.

Lastly, there is no assurance that the public will unanimously accept a Covid-19 vaccine when one is available. There will likely be concerns about the vaccine’s origins, its safety and side effects, especially on children, as well as the halal status. The government, healthcare organisations and all healthcare professionals will need to address these concerns actively and dispel any misinformation that may give rise to anti-vaccine sentiments.

Having a vaccine will not be enough; only the successful vaccination of the population will allow us to emerge victorious against Covid-19.