Asia

Singapore will not be 'last in queue' for Covid-19 vaccine, says PM Lee

SINGAPORE – Singapore has made arrangements with multiple Covid-19 vaccine makers to ensure it “will not be last in the queue” once doses are available, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He also observed that Asian countries have had greater success than their Western counterparts in getting their people to comply with pandemic measures, in an interview with Bloomberg News aired on Tuesday (Nov 17) for its New Economy Forum.

Asked by Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait if smaller countries have to worry about obtaining a vaccine amid worldwide demand, PM Lee said it was a reality that larger countries would “get some of their way” in ensuring they top the waiting list.

“It is a pity because the WHO (World Health Organisation) makes a very valid point that the best way to get Covid-19 under control is to have a rational scheme of priorities to distribute the vaccine to the places where it will make the most difference to the outbreak,” he said. “But to optimise that, on a global scale (of) around 200 countries, I think is going to be very hard.”

Singapore has formed a committee to prioritise those who should receive the vaccine before others when it is rolled out by the companies which it is engaged in talks with.

They include pharmaceutical giant Pfizer – which has announced its vaccine as 90 per cent effective – and the joint effort, by scientists at Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School and US firm Arcturus Therapeutics, which expects to ship its initial batch in the first three months of next year.

PM Lee said he was confident a number of vaccine candidates would pass muster; and that these would, in a few years’ time, be extensively available and much more affordable.

“But I do not think you would have finished protecting the world’s population within the next year,” he said. “Furthermore, you are not sure what risks and problems may arise. We have to learn as we feel our way forward.”

PM Lee was also quizzed on why Asia has reined in the pandemic better than others, with Mr Micklethwait contrasting hundreds of deaths per million people in the United States, Britain and Germany with single-digit figures in Singapore and China.

PM Lee said populations in Asia cooperated with wearing masks or practising safe distancing, compared to the Europeans or Americans “where after some time you are fed up and tired of being locked down, and there is a push back… You want to go out and let your hair down and have a drink and have a rave”.

But he also acknowledged that Singapore has been lucky. “We have quite an elderly population, so if there had been many community cases, I think we would have had a large number of casualties and deaths too.”

With the vast majority of cases circulating instead in the migrant worker dormitories, Singapore has worked to confine the spread, give medical treatment to the workers and keep them and the general population safe, said the Prime Minister.

He said the challenge for Singapore now was to find a way to re-open its borders to business and tourism flows, while managing the inevitable import and introduction of the coronavirus into the population.

“If you are a country like China, you can decide to close all your entry points practically and be in splendid isolation for quite some time without much difficulty,” said PM Lee. “But for Singapore, that is going to be very tough.”

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