Vaccine hesitancy stirs in nearly COVID-free Singapore

First vaccines arrived this week with prime minister expected to be among first recipients to boost public confidence.

Life in Singapore has returned almost to normal after strict measures, testing, tracing and quarantines brought COVID-19 under control [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Singapore is preparing to roll out COVID-19 vaccinations, but the city state’s striking success in controlling the virus is making some question whether they should take the jabs.

In a country where compliance with the authorities is generally high, some Singaporeans fear the potential side effects – even if minimal – are not worth the risk when daily cases are almost zero and fatalities are among the world’s lowest.

“Singapore is doing pretty well,” said Aishwarya Kris, who is in her 40s and does not want to receive a shot.

“I doubt the vaccine will help at all.”

A poll by local newspaper The Straits Times in early December found that 48 percent of respondents said they will get a vaccine when it is available and 34 percent will wait six to 12 months.

But the government is keen to open more of the economy with the help of the vaccine in a country dependent on travel and trade.

“Singapore is a victim of its own success,” said Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases expert at the city’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

To show the vaccine is safe, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 68, said he and his colleagues would be among the early recipients of the shots.

The first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived this week and Singapore expects to have enough vaccines for its 5.7 million people by the third-quarter of 2021.

The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Singapore on Monday [Betty Chua/Ministry of Communications and Informations via Reuters]

The first vaccines will be given to priority groups such as health workers in the next month or two, but it will be some time before it is offered to the broader population, said Lawrence Wong, a minister who co-heads Singapore’s virus task force. Vaccinations will be free and voluntary.

“The roll-out to the Singapore population will also take place over several months, depending on factors such as the supply and delivery schedules of the vaccines,” he said.


Civic duty

Many Singaporeans said they are ready to take the shots – not just to ward off infection but in the hope they can travel again. For others, it is a civic duty.

“I am the one in the family that goes out daily to work, so it’s the responsible thing to do,” said Jeff Tan, a 39-year-old photographer.

Singapore acted swiftly after the first cases of the virus were reported and although it was blindsided by tens of thousands of cases in migrant workers dormitories, it has brought the outbreak under control.

Singaporeans are generally accepting of vaccines, with a near 90-percent uptake of crucial childhood jabs, said Dr Hsu Li Yang at Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at National University of Singapore.

But there is concern about a new vaccine that uses novel technology and has had a rapid development and approval process. Typically, vaccine acceptance takes time, he said.

Even three nurses told the Reuters news agency under the condition of anonymity that they would prefer not to take the vaccine.

Singapore’s drug regulator said it granted approval after data submitted by Pfizer-BioNTech was assessed to demonstrate the vaccine meets the required safety, efficacy and quality standards and that the benefits outweigh the known risks.

Singapore residents have adopted mask-wearing and other measures to control COVID-19 [Loriene Perera/Reuters]

Pfizer’s vaccine has been linked with a few cases of severe allergic reactions as it has been rolled out in the United Kingdom and the United States. But it has not turned up any serious long-term side effects in large-scale clinical trials.

John Han, a sales manager, said he wanted to wait for 80 percent of the population to take the vaccine without side effects.

“If there is a choice given, I might not take it. I don’t mind to put on the mask, be safe, avoid crowded places,” said Han, 40.

Source: Reuters