Lawrence Wong: Those not choosing COVID-19 vaccination may need 'more frequent testing' – report

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Multi-ministry taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong.
Multi-ministry taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong. (PHOTO: MCI)

SINGAPORE — There will be “tangible benefits” for those who choose to take the COVID-19 vaccine, while individuals who choose not to get the vaccine shots may need to go through more frequent testing and “additional requirements”.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who is also the co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce (MTF), spoke of these consequences in a CNA interview televised on Thursday (7 January), as Singapore prepares to roll out its vaccination programme to the public in the coming months.

“It may well be, if the data validates all the hypotheses, that transmission risk can be significantly reduced. It may well be that travellers coming back need not serve SHN (Stay-Home Notice) or will serve a shorter SHN. So those will be the benefits of getting a vaccination besides the fact that you are protecting yourself and your loved ones,” he said during the interview.

“There will be these tangible benefits and those who choose not to be vaccinated, well, then you have to live with more frequent tests, you have to live with quarantine, you have to live with all of these other additional requirements.”

Having secured its first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines last month, Singapore began vaccinating frontline healthcare staff at the National Centre of Infectious Diseases on 30 December.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that when free public vaccination begins, it will be voluntary, but highly recommended.

Susceptible to infection even in post-pandemic world

One of the guests at the round-table CNA interview – Ministry of Health’s director of communicable diseases, Associate Professor Vernon Lee – said that individuals who do not get vaccinated are still susceptible to being infected with COVID-19 in a post-pandemic world.

“Even if we have a high vaccination coverage, it does not mean no disease. It is not possible to wipe COVID-19 from the face of the earth. We’re going to see this recurring from time to time, so it is important for that personal protection reason,” said Assoc Prof Lee during the interview.

“If we are not vaccinated, every single individual who is not vaccinated is another naive susceptible individual who then can get infected by those diseases. To protect yourself, you should get vaccinated and then there’s the other benefit of protecting your loved ones and those around you.”

Wong added that there would still be pandemics in a post-COVID-19 world, with more virulent diseases that could arise in the future.

He therefore advised the public to think about permanently incorporating the health and hygiene measures during this pandemic period into their new daily routines, so that they can be “more prepared and more resilient in the future”.

Moderna vaccine likely to be authorised in Singapore: Wong

Wong also hinted during the CNA interview that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is likely to be authorised for use in Singapore, given that it has been approved for use in the US.

On the subject of whether people would be allowed to choose their vaccine, he told CNA that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines worked similarly, and efficacy rates from evidence around the world were “all about the same”.

“So really, there's not much to differentiate between these two vaccines. If later on other vaccines are authorised.... then we have to think about whether choice may be extended. Or perhaps some vaccines work better for certain sub-segments of the population, and then we might allocate vaccines differently as well,” he said.

According to the Economic Development Board (EDB), the vaccine expert panel convened by the Singapore government made its first advance purchase agreement with Moderna in June, securing it with a downpayment.

In August, it bought the vaccine from Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac and was in advance talks with Pfizer-BioNTech.

Wong told CNA that the panel intends to continue to see whether it can make further purchases to add to the vaccine portfolio. And as additional vaccines come on board, there will be some that can or cannot be used in certain sub-populations.

For example, Assoc Prof Lee said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine cannot be used in people who have severe allergic reactions or a history of anaphylaxis. For now, children under 16, pregnant women and individuals who are severely immunocompromised are also excluded.

“Other vaccines might be (usable) in different populations. So we need to wait for more information... Which vaccine is more applicable or relevant to that particular population if it's offered, we will encourage people to get that vaccine,” said Wong.

Vaccines should be effective against new COVID-19 strain

When asked if the approved vaccines would work against the new strain of COVID-19 that surfaced after they were approved around the world, Associate Professor Benjamin Ong, senior vice-president (Health Education & Resources) at the National University of Singapore, said during the CNA interview that from the mutations that have been studied so far, the vaccines “probably would still work” even as they are being actively tested.

Both he and Assoc Prof Lee said virus mutations occur all the time and are part of natural evolution. Lee likened the mutations to a car getting a different licence plate or colour.

“The same make, same model, different licence plate, we see many of them all around the time. And sometimes you might have a car with new tires, it might be a bit more efficient, move faster, and so on, but it's still the same make,” he said during the interview.

“At this point, there's no evidence that it (the virus) has changed to another make, another model, another brand. And we, of course, will be looking out for different strains, different variants that occur all the time.”

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