Risk of Covid-19 vaccine small compared with not getting one: Experts

SINGAPORE – A Covid-19 vaccination is not risk-free but the risk is small and a person in fact puts himself, his loved ones and society at higher risk by not getting a jab, experts said at a Straits Times Reset webinar series on the A-Z Of Covid-19 vaccines on Thursday (Dec 17).

“It’s not a matter of saying, if I do nothing, we’re okay. The weighing is really not between the vaccine and nothing, but the vaccine and the disease,” said Associate Professor Lim Poh Lian, the director of the high-level isolation unit at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and a member of the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 Vaccine Expert Committee.

“To be afraid to (get vaccinated) just because you’re afraid of that very small risk will then actually harm a lot more people.”

The ST webinar was held just days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared Singapore’s Covid-19 vaccination plan in a televised address on Monday (Dec 14).

Hosted by ST senior health correspondent Salma Khalik, the webinar also featured Professor Ooi Eng Eong of Duke-NUS Medical School and the president of the Singapore Association of Pharmaceutical Industries Ashish Pal.

Public interest in Covid-19 vaccines is high now that the Government has announced that the first shipment by United States pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech will arrive here by the end of the year.

Given that Covid-19 vaccines are new and have been produced at record speed, many are understandably keen to take a wait-and-see approach to vaccination, even as Singapore is starting to further reopen its economy and borders.

“The challenge is really that if you don’t take the vaccine, then you’re not protected,” said Prof Lim, who also heads the Traveller’s Health & Vaccination Clinic at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Should Singapore be hit by a second wave, it will be much harder to respond by vaccinating a lot of people in the middle of it because the health systems will be busy and there may be stricter safe distancing measures in place, she said.

Prof Lim also said that the Pfizer vaccine requires two shots, and it can take up to five weeks for the full immunity and protection to kick in. While the outbreak is currently controlled here, there are still imported cases, and every single imported case could spark a cluster, she warned.

Weighing in, Prof Ooi, who is the principal investigator of a Covid-19 vaccine that had early stage trials conducted in Singapore, said: “Even if we have stockpiled enough vaccines to cover the entire Singapore population, rolling out the vaccine takes time.

“So, if we wait until an epidemic hits us and then say, ‘OK, now I want a vaccine,’ well, you may not be in line in time, right?”

While Singapore has zero community cases currently, it comes at a very heavy price as a lot of people are affected by the control measures against Covid-19, said Mr Pal, managing director of pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme in Singapore and Malaysia.

“If you think about the economic contraction this has had around the world, I think the only way to kind of start to get this process moving and get the world back in order is to allow the free movement of people,” said Mr Pal.

Prof Lim said vaccination is “a journey of a thousand miles, because we have to get everyone in the world vaccinated. We’re really only as strong as our weakest link”.

“The best minds in the world have worked on this and we’ve paid good money for the vaccines and we’ve looked at it as hard as we can,” she said.

As a doctor, she will be among the first to get jabbed. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating… It’s our families, it’s ourselves, it’s people whom we care about on the line. So we would not recommend it unless we felt it was effective, safe and of good quality,” she said.

“We want everyone to please think about getting the vaccine, not just for yourself, but because you need to protect people around you.”

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