Low vaccination rate – taking a closer look

We should be wary of opportunistic political upmanship that feeds on public frustration (often due to misinformation) and desperation

GERD ALTMANN/PIXABAY

The National Covid immunisation programme (NIP) kickstarted with a lot of fanfare.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin received his first vaccine in public on 24 February. Three months later, the people expressed their dissatisfaction and lamented that the vaccination rate is too low, alleging that it is mainly due to the government being slow and incompetent. Often, the ‘better’ countries they cited are Singapore, EU countries, the US, Israel and so on.

I would like to offer an objective perspective on the national vaccination programme. Often the public judges a policy or a programme by its immediate outcome. In this case, the current number and percentage of people vaccinated or have received at least one dose of vaccine. However, one must first consider the NIP process in its entirety to understand the outcome, including the procurement, registration and delivery of the vaccines, the registration of participants and finally, the administration of the vaccines.

We should understand that the government has allocated funds to procure 66.7 million doses covering 110% of residents in the country from five sources: Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinovac, CanSino and Gamaleya/RIDF (Sputnik V). Currently, the first three have obtained product registration approval from the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency, which is responsible for ensuring the safety, efficacy and quality of all pharmaceutical products before they can be used in Malaysia. The government has set a target timeline to vaccinate at least 80% of the population by February 2022.

Undoubtedly, the current vaccination rate is not as fast as many expect to see, especially during the recent wave of severe infection sweeping across the country. As of 20 May, the percentage of vaccinated persons (who received two doses) and those who received at least one dose was 2.6% and 4.2%, respectively. Based on the current vaccination rate, one projection shows that Malaysia would need about five years to vaccinate 80% of its population. Is that a fair assessment of the situation?

On 12 April, a special committee to ensure access to Covid vaccine supply (JKJAV) published a timeline of vaccine supply (Figure 1). If we look at the vaccine supply (green trend line), compared to the current demand by registration counts (yellow horizontal line) and the target vaccination coverage (light blue line), it is clear we were facing a vaccine shortage at the early stage. The same scenario is happening to many other countries globally.

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Malaysia is not too far from the average Asian countries and even ahead of Japan and Thailand (see Figure 2). When some vaccine manufacturing countries declare bans or restrictions on vaccine exports, like India and the EU, these will disrupt the scheduled supply to many countries.

Prior to the pandemic, Malaysia did not have vaccine manufacturing ability except for Duopharma’s fill-and-finish facility. Since then, Pharmaniaga has set up its fill-and-finish capacity. While the two government-linked companies are tasked to do this last manufacturing step for Sputnik V and Sinovac vaccines respectively thus lowering costs, they still need to import the bulk inputs from China and Russia.

It is pointless to talk about faster vaccination rates when the local manufacturers cannot guarantee to deliver the vaccines as planned. The demand for such precious resources is tremendous, and the production is insufficient. It is not that the government lacks resources to set up vaccination centres to speed up vaccine administration; that would require just two to three days to do so.

Meanwhile, the registration rate for vaccination in Malaysia is still not satisfactory. As of the 20 May, only 43% of those eligible (aged 18 and above) have registered. This means that even if the federal government were to receive all the vaccine orders today, there would be more than half of those doses with no takers.

Apart from the less than satisfactory registration, it is also not difficult to understand why the public harbours the sentiment that the vaccination programme is going too slow. The current percentage of those who received at least one dose of the vaccine among the registered population is 13.3%, which means 86.7% of people are still in the waiting queue. We can understand that they get frustrated with the current pandemic situation.

The states and federal territories with over 50% of its population registered for the vaccination programme are Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Sarawak, Labuan and Penang (see Figure 3). But if one looks at the percentage of registered participants who received at least one dose of the vaccine – states like Selangor, Johor, Penang and Sarawak fall below the national average. However, these states have received the most compared to other less populated states in terms of the actual number of administered doses.

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This might explain why certain states feel like they need to take matters into their own hands to ‘speed up’ the vaccination campaign. On 16 May, the Sarawak state government announced that they had procured one million doses of the Sinovac vaccine, expected to arrive soon in two batches.

On 18 May, NIP coordinating minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, clarified the conditions under which the state governments are allowed to procure their vaccine supplies.

A day after the minister’s statement, the Selangor state government announced its own Selgate Covid vaccination programme. This programme aims to register employers in Selangor to vaccinate their employees with the Sinovac vaccine for RM190 per dose.

On the same day, Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow and former finance minister Lim Guan Eng famously criticised the federal government in a press conference for blocking a private donor from contributing two million doses of Sinovac vaccine to the Penang state government.

The conditions clarified by Khairy were clear.

First, the products must be registered and approved by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency, which checks the vaccines’ efficacy and safety profile according to laws and regulations that are based on stringent standards of the World Health Organization and countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

Second, if the procurement source is from the same pharmaceutical company as the NIP, the federal government will be prioritised to receive its supplies before any other parties from Malaysia. This was an agreement with the vaccine manufacturers to ensure that the national vaccination programme is not compromised.

Third, if the supplier is not involved in the NIP – the state governments or private sector can freely procure them provided they have received an approval by the NPRA for the vaccines concerned.

Therefore, the apparent win-win situation is when a state government secures alternative vaccine sources outside the NIP vaccine portfolio. However, based on what we saw recently – the three state governments were considering the Sinovac vaccine. They were going for the same vaccine pool, therefore directly competing with the federal government! Suppose these states receive the vaccines before the federal government’s remaining order – it would come at the expense of other states that do not have the financial resources or wealthy donors to access the vaccine quickly.

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Setting this precedent would open a Pandora’s box. Other state governments may follow suit to demonstrate to their voters that they can also get ahead of the queue. It would result in something that we must avoid: the politicisation of the NIP. Imagine if states go their own way – eventually, this could create a chaotic situation for the NIP and probably undermine the national programme. What is worse, this could erode the social solidarity and the consensus to allow citizens and residents with health vulnerabilities (and thus carry a higher risk of Covid) to receive the vaccines first.

One should not only think about vaccine procurement but also consider the logistics and execution of vaccination. Who administers the vaccines? The NIP currently involves private healthcare facilities to help with the public vaccination programme. Would the state governments also compete with the federal government over the human resources required for vaccine administration? If this affects the national programme, at whose expense will it be? The NIP is free of charge at the point of vaccine administration; this is different, for example, from Selangor’s proposed programme. As the latter signals that those employers who can pay can get the vaccine first, what does it say about the social solidarity over vaccination priorities?

At the height of the current pandemic, we should be wary of opportunistic political upmanship that feeds on public frustration (often due to misinformation) and desperation for faster vaccination. Instead, we should call for patience and a better understanding of the process and issues related to the NIP. Most importantly, people should stand in solidarity to fight the pandemic together, not just thinking of oneself first but also for every one of us. – Malaysiakini

Dr Lim Chee Han, a public health policy researcher, is currently a senior researcher at Third World Network and co-convener of the People’s Health Forum Malaysia.

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