Singapore began its coronavirus vaccination on Wednesday, prioritizing health workers as the fight against the pandemic continues. Singapore is the first country in Southeast Asia to implement the vaccination programme using a legally approved vaccine.

More than 30 staff at the National Center for Infectious Diseases were the first people to receive the vaccine from US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German firm BioNTech.

“Vaccines have managed to bring pandemics down to their knees before. So I am hopeful that this vaccine will do the same,” infectious diseases doctor Kalisvar Marimuthu said in recorded remarks provided by Singapore’s health ministry.

Those who got vaccinated today will return for the second dose on January 20 next year.

Singapore is the first country in Asia to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. It has also signed advance purchase agreements and made early down payments on several other vaccine candidates, including Moderna and Sinovac.

The island state expects to have enough vaccine doses for all 5.7 million people by the second half of 2021.

Singapore was praised by global community with its swift action after the first cases of coronavirus infections were reported. But the country battled a heavy outbreak when tens of thousands of cases were detected in migrant workers’ dormitories. Even when cases are still reported daily, Singapore has one of the world’s lowest fatality rates – only 29 people have died of the virus.

Wednesday’s vaccination marks “a new chapter in our fight against the pandemic,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted on Facebook.

“The vaccine is key to living in a COVID-19 world, but it will still be some time before this storm will pass.”

After receiving the vaccine, staff members received a vaccination card and was observed for 30 minutes on site, to ensure that they have “tolerated the vaccine well”, said NCID in the fact sheet.

Public healthcare institutions including acute hospitals, community hospitals and polyclinics, as well as private hospitals, will progressively arrange for staff members to be vaccinated within their respective premises, said the Ministry of Health.

The government is aiming to vaccinate the elderly, beginning with those aged 70 and above from February 2021.

After that, other Singaporeans and long-term residents who are medically eligible will be vaccinated.

The vaccine is free for all Singaporeans and long-term residents, including long-term work permit holders.

The first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in Singapore on December 21, making the country the first in Asia to obtain it.

In a televised speech on December 14, PM Lee Hsien Loong announced that the country allocated a budget of over 1 billion Singapore dollars for vaccines. He clarified that while the vaccine is free, it will be given on a voluntary basis.

Prime Minister Lee further stated that Singapore has been “working quietly” since early on in the coronavirus pandemic to ensure access to vaccines.

He added that the government also supported local efforts to develop a cure for COVID-19.

Vaccination in Southeast Asia

Beyond Singapore, other countries in Southeast Asia have yet to start coronavirus vaccination. National governments are still working on securing deals with pharmaceutical companies that have promising vaccines.

In the Philippines, some soldiers and cabinet members have already received coronavirus vaccines since early September, though the government has yet to approve any vaccine.

Philippines’ Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday that the vaccine was obtained without government authorization and knowledge. The country’s health ministry warned against the use of unapproved vaccines and said that importing, distributing or selling them is considered illegal.

Passengers of a public vehicle in the Philippines are separated by a plastic barrier. (Reuters)

Indonesia, which has the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia, plans to start vaccinations with China’s Sinovac once it gains emergency use clearance. The country already received 1.2 million doses and expects 1.8 million more next month.

With a budget of $504 million, Malaysia aims to get 80 percent of its 26.5 million people vaccinated by the second quarter of 2021. It is set to secure vaccines from AstraZeneca, China’s Sinovac and CanSino Biologics, and Russia’s Sputnik V. It’s is also in talks with Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Vietnam, meanwhile, is working on developing its own vaccines. The country started the first phase of clinical trials of the Nanocovax on December 17. If proven effective, production will start in 2022. Two other Vietnamese vaccine manufacturers will also start human trials in the first quarter of 2021.

Vietnam imposes mandatory wearing of face masks in public. (Reuters)

In Thailand, where a new outbreak has marred the country’s initial success, an advance agreement with AstraZeneca is expected to be approved and produced by mid-2021. Thailand may receive its first vaccine doses by that time and will immediately start distribution.

Under agreement with AstraZeneca, Siam Bioscience will produce vaccines at its facilities, and Thailand will receive technology transfer. Thailand said it will supply coronavirus vaccines at “reasonable prices” to Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam when it begins production.

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