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Everything You Need to Know About Malaysia’s National Covid-19 Vaccination Programme

Hope for recovery has come to Malaysia at last | File Image
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Should you get the vaccine? Will you have to pay? Are there any side effects? Should you be selective about the brand? Short answers: Yes, no, only minimal, and it’s complicated. Read on for all the details.

With equal parts reverence and fanfare, Malaysia’s first shipment of the Covid-19 vaccine – this batch from US-based pharmaceutical giant Pfizer – arrived on the morning of Sunday, February 21. Though the shipping containers looked completely unremarkable as they were unloaded from Malaysia Airlines flight MH604, the 312,390 doses held inside at -70°C represented a sliver of hope in the year-long fight against the pandemic. Sunday’s shipment was the first part of some 32 million doses already secured from Pfizer, with more coming from other suppliers, as well, including AstraZeneca in the UK and companies in both China and Russia.

The first Covid-19 vaccines arrive in Malaysia, Sunday, February 21 | Image Credit: Reuters

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

HOW IS THE VACCINE PROGRAMME SET UP?

Malaysia is planning to reach herd immunity levels by immunising at least 80% of the population. There are enough doses secured to cover the country’s entire population, so there should not be any shortages. The rollout will be done in three overlapping phases.

Infographic Credit: MOH / Malay Mail

The first group to receive the vaccine – after government leaders who do so in a bid to publicly demonstrate confidence in the vaccine and show its safety – will be the country’s frontliners, including medical and law enforcement personnel, along with firefighters, volunteers, and the civil defence sector. This group comprises about 500,000 individuals and should start by February 26. This phase is expected to run through April 2021.

The next group, with jabs scheduled from April to August 2021, will include roughly 9.4 million at-risk people in the general population, such as over-60s and those with co-morbidities or complicating factors such as non-communicable diseases or disabilities.

Beginning in May 2021 and lasting until February 2022, all remaining residents 18 and above will be able to receive the vaccine. In addition to Malaysian citizens, the vaccination drive will also include diplomats, expatriates, students, foreign spouses and their children, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees cardholders.

The government will also provide vaccinations to the millions of foreign workers in the country, both documented and undocumented. Assurances have been given that no undocumented persons will be detained or arrested while getting their Covid-19 vaccine.

With 32 million doses on the way, Pfizer’s vaccine will account for almost half of Malaysia’s total stockpile of vaccines | Image Credit: Reuters

WHAT WILL IT COST?

The vaccine will be given free of charge to everyone, regardless of citizenship or legal residence status in Malaysia.

WHERE WILL VACCINATIONS BE GIVEN? WILL I NEED TWO JABS?

There will be some 600 locations nationwide established for vaccinations to be administered. The location(s) nearest you will be given during registration.

There is a five-step process to get the vaccine at the location, with each step handled by a ‘station.’ The first station is to screen for symptoms and body temperature; the second station is for registration; the third station for consultation and immunisation agreement; the fourth station is for the actual Covid-19 vaccine jab; and the fifth station is for observation.

Malaysia has decided to provide the vaccine in two doses, as this demonstrably increases its efficacy. (With Pfizer’s vaccine, for example, the first jab is about 85% effective. The second, given a few weeks later, sends the effectiveness all the way to 95%.)

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I HAVE TO REGISTER?

Yes, to receive the vaccine and to allow for proper scheduling and tracing, you must register first. There are five ways to do this. Most will likely register via the MySejahtera app or the soon-to-be-launched JKJAV (Covid-19 Vaccine Supply Access Guarantee Special Committee) website. Registration is also possible via a dedicated hotline (number to be announced), or through manual registration at public and private clinics and hospitals. For those living in rural areas, registration will be assisted by the respective state government.

If you have the MySejahtera app – and you should – be sure to check regularly for app updates (or enable them automatically for the app) to ensure you have the most current version, particularly as the vaccine drive gets underway. The iOS app (version 1.0.28) has been recently updated to reflect the vaccination programme, with the Android update (also version 1.0.28) rolling out on February 22 and 23. If the most recent version is not installed, users should see a prompt to update upon launching the app.

The latest version of MySejahtera has vaccine information | Image Credit: MOH
Most people will register easily directly through MySejahtera | Image Credit: MOH

HOW MANY DOSES ARE COMING?

Malaysia has contracted with five different suppliers to provide a total of 66.7 million doses (each person vaccinated should receive two doses, given a few weeks apart). The first batch to arrive, as noted above, is from Pfizer-BioNTech, whose product will ultimately comprise a large percentage of the total doses coming into country – nearly half. This vaccine has a very high 95% rate of effectiveness, has received widespread approval for use, and has already been deployed in a number of countries.

Of the balance, 12 million doses will come from China’s Sinovac Biotech, 6.4 million doses will be supplied by Russia’s Gameleya Research Institute, 12.8 million doses by the UK’s AstraZeneca, with the rest, some 3.5 million doses, being furnished by China’s CanSino Biologics.

CAN I CHOOSE WHICH VACCINE I GET?

This is certainly unlikely, particularly in the early stages, and experts suggest there is little benefit to the population as a whole for people to individually select a specific brand. Yes, some brands may have shown higher efficacy rates in clinical trials, but those numbers don’t always translate precisely to the real world; in fact, one of the issues with China’s Sinovac vaccine has been the lack of consistency in the reported numbers during trials. (Efficacy rates range from 50.4 to 91.25%.) The AstraZeneca vaccine has also shown wide-ranging fluctuation in efficacy rates, though not as dramatic.

Also, the goal is not to ensure person A or person B is individually immunised, but rather to get enough of the entire population to receive their shots to allow herd immunity in the broader community. That’s what will spell the end of Covid-19.

Some have suggested that as months go by and a steady and comprehensive supply of vaccines is available, people may be able to find out which brand they’re slated to receive, and possibly even request a different location which may offer a different brand. This is far from guaranteed, however, so it’s important to schedule your jab and to accept the vaccine you are given.

Russia’s ‘Sputnik’ vaccine | Image Credit: AP

SO I SHOULD GET THIS VACCINE?

The bottom line on this, if you’re over 18 and able to receive the jab, is a strong ‘YES’. Given the abundance of misinformation (especially on social media), there will always be those who are reluctant to do so, or may even refuse, but when it comes to vaccinations, personal decisions affect more than just the person making them. These vaccines have been tested, tested again, and gone through several rounds of trials to ensure their efficacy and safety. And if not enough people get the vaccine, then the coronavirus will likely be with us that much longer.

There are two notable exceptions, however:

  • People with a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to any component of the Covid-19 vaccine should NOT receive it.
  • People with a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to any vaccine or injectable (intramuscular or intravenous) medication should consult with their doctor to assess risk prior to receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.

With some vaccines, you are actually receiving a weakened or even ‘killed’ strain of the actual virus, which helps your body develop resistance and ultimately immunity. However, the breakthrough biotech advancements that led to such a relatively speedy availability for the Covid-19 vaccine are quite different, and use messenger RNA (mRNA) to effectively teach our cells how to make a protein that triggers a strong immune response.

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If you’re interested in reading a bit about mRNA and spike proteins and how these vaccines do what they do, more on that can be found HERE. For a deeper dive, though still in layman terms, head over to the CDC site HERE.

BUT WHAT IF I’VE HAD COVID-19 AND RECOVERED?

According to experts, you should still get the vaccine. The extent to which antibodies (which develop in response to a Covid-19 infection) are protective is still unclear. If these antibodies are protective, it’s not known what levels are needed to protect against reinfection. So for now, even those who have previously had Covid-19 can and should receive the vaccine. There is no risk and no downside.

To learn more about who should or should not get the vaccine, and why, CLICK HERE.

WHO’S HEADING UP THIS PROGRAMME? IS THERE AN OFFICIAL GUIDE?

Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation Khairy Jamaluddin – certainly in a different role from his previous stint as Minister of Youth and Sports – is tasked with heading up Malaysia’s National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme. In addressing the anti-vaxxer folks, he has made a point of urging Malaysians to get the vaccine, stating, “Trust in science, not conspiracy theories.”

Khairy Jamaluddin explains the vaccination programme at a media briefing | Image Credit: Bernama

The government has published a guide giving a comprehensive overview of the programme. The handbook can be downloaded and read HERE, and is available in both Bahasa Malaysia and English.

WHAT ARE THE SIDE EFFECTS FROM THE VACCINE?

In temperate climates, the annual flu shot is a common ritual for many people to stave off bouts of influenza. As the vaccine uses a weakened or killed strain of the influenza virus, oftentimes people will develop mild flu-like symptoms after receiving the shot. This may cause concern in those considering the Covid-19 vaccine.

However, as noted earlier, the Covid-19 vaccine is altogether different and does not use a weakened or killed strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Therefore, you will not come down with a mild case of Covid-19 from getting the jab.

The most common reactions include injection site pain, mild headache, tiredness, and minor muscle aches, usually in the first two days and then resolving within a week after vaccination. Full details from the CDC can be found HERE.

Ouch! | Image Credit: The Star

That said, at vaccination locations, patients will be observed for a few minutes following their injections in case of any unforeseen reactions. The entire procedure will take 15 to 30 minutes.

Here’s the most important bit: Worldwide to date, more than 150 million Covid-19 vaccine doses have already been given, with no unexpected safety concerns arising.

In the unlikely event of serious side effects from the Covid-19 vaccine, the Malaysian government has pledged ex-gratia compensation payments, with details to be announced soon. The move is similar to that enacted by Singapore with its vaccine injury financial assistance plan.

WILL I BE ABLE TO PROVE I’VE BEEN IMMUNISED?

Yes. The Malaysian government is planning to issue ‘Covid-19 Passports’ as evidence of vaccination. They are considering multiple ways of doing this, either in digital or physical forms, or perhaps both. This will facilitate proof of immunisation while here in Malaysia (likely digital, through the MySejahtera app) and, eventually, while travelling internationally (physical documentation).

According to Minister of Health Dr Adham Baba, “We are proposing two ways of doing it — have the proof of vaccination displayed in the MySejahtera app or maintain the proof in physical form, which is a passport that can be accepted by other countries.”

He added that the government was currently in the process of refining the plan.

A BIG ROUND OF APPLAUSE

Malaysia has, like every other country, been learning as they go during this pandemic, and has attracted plenty of criticism for everything from excessive lockdowns to muddled communications to the behaviours of some government officials.

However, whatever missteps may have been made in other aspects of a genuinely monumental challenge for any nation, it must be said that Malaysia has really done an exemplary job in negotiating for and securing the vaccine from multiple suppliers around the world in impressive quantities more than sufficient to immunise Malaysia’s entire population. Clearly, vaccinating tens of millions of people is a staggering challenge. Malaysia, however, has set forth a logical, practical, and workable blueprint to meet that challenge and achieve its goals.

The country should also get enormous credit for its decision to provide this all-important vaccine to everyone in Malaysia, citizens and non-citizens alike, completely free of charge.

If the rollout of the programme is as orderly as it’s predicted to be, this will be an enormous success that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives, and return to what will admittedly be a new post-pandemic normal, but a nevertheless welcome one indeed.




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