KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 12 — Covid-19 vaccines remain the best chance of bringing the pandemic under control, but vaccine nationalism is leaving large parts of the global population unvaccinated that allows the virus to mutate.
Infectious disease expert Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman said with only four per cent of Africa’s population fully vaccinated due to limited Covid-19 vaccine supply, it gives an opportunity for the coronavirus to mutate into potentially a more infectious strain.
“Yes, the more people who get infected, the more chance for the virus to mutate, that’s at a local level. At the global level, of course, it is shocking that I think right now, that only four per cent of Africa has been vaccinated, and whilst, including ourselves here in Malaysia, talking about booster doses.
“I hope the world doesn’t live to regret the nationalism that we are practising in terms of not sharing the vaccines or not giving the opportunity for greater production of vaccines to cover the rest of the world because when you have infections occurring in Africa, India, wherever else, in Latin America where vaccine coverage is low, there will always be an opportunity for the virus to mutate.
“As we’ve seen, even New Zealand was not able to have zero Covid-19. It’s an island and it tried to close its borders, but somehow, the virus gets in,” Dr Adeeba said at the Sir John Monash Lecture webinar organised by Monash University Malaysia last Thursday.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials warned earlier this year against vaccine nationalism, which they said could increase the risk of the coronavirus mutating further.
Leaders from the world’s developing countries, including Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, pleaded at the United Nations General Assembly two weeks ago for wealthy countries to stop hoarding life-saving Covid-19 vaccines.
Ghana president Nana Akufo-Addo said the African continent bears the worst brunt of vaccine nationalism, with about 900 million Africans still in need of vaccines.
According to global data tracker Our World In Data, as of October 10, Malaysia has fully vaccinated 65 per cent of its total population, similar to the United Kingdom’s 66 per cent and the European Union’s 64 per cent coverage. The United States, which faces vaccine hesitancy among many Americans, has only fully inoculated 56 per cent of its total population. Africa has fully vaccinated less than 5 per cent of its total population.
Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin — who has been critical of global vaccine inequity — describing COVAX as an “abysmal failure” — previously defended Malaysia’s Covid-19 booster programme by saying that Malaysia does not waste coronavirus vaccines, unlike developed countries that have a surplus stock of doses, resulting in wastage.
Khairy said last Thursday that booster shots would not be made mandatory, but that the government strongly recommends for high-risk individuals like the elderly, those with comorbidities, frontline health care workers, and people with suppressed immune systems to get a third dose.
National Recovery Council chairman Muhyiddin Yassin said last month that the government has procured sufficient coronavirus vaccines to offer boosters to all adult residents in Malaysia.
Immunologists and virologists previously told CodeBlue that there was no evidence to justify a mass booster vaccination programme for all adults, saying that two vaccine doses still gave strong protection against severe disease and death.
Separately, Dr Adeeba expressed her support for a vaccine mandate, saying it helps to protect a sizable group of people who cannot get vaccinated due to health reasons from getting infected.
“I think all over the world we’re starting to see vaccine mandates, even in countries and regions like the US, where they really value their individual freedom and the argument goes that vaccine is not just to protect yourself.
“I’m one for vaccine mandate because as we talked about earlier, there are people who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons or immunocompromised people who may not have a completely satisfactory response, and children below the age of 12 who have not been vaccinated — and all these people are at risk by those people who are not vaccinated.
“So, I am for the vaccine mandate, particularly in areas where there’s a lot of human interactions,” Dr Adeeba said.
The government has made coronavirus vaccines mandatory for civil servants, and is mulling the prospects of mandatory Covid-19 jabs for workers in the health, security, education, and services sectors.