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An explainer: Incoming variants and vaccines

January 26, 2023

Full Report

Having made sense of the COVID-19 naming scheme in part one of our series, we now move our attention to upcoming COVID-19 threats to Malaysia.

We spoke to the head of infectious disease control at Hospital Canselor Tunku Mukhriz, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Dr Sharifah Azura, to better understand the complexities of the situation facing Malaysia and how best to mitigate it. 

Incoming variants and vaccines

With the incoming influx of Chinese tourists to Malaysia, there are worries that another COVID-19 wave is imminent. The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) is expecting 1.2 million Chinese tourists to visit Malaysia in 2023.

However, Dr Sharifah called on the public to not panic, but rather to listen to the Ministry of Health’s advisories. She explained that even though the Chinese health ministries have been shy to share their data, the Malaysian Ministry of Health very likely knows the real situation on the ground. 

Recently China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention  announced that it is unlikely that there would be another COVID-19 wave in China due to 80% of the total population having contracted it.

Dr Sharifah explained that another COVID-19 wave was possible if there was a new strain, but there was no need for Malaysians to panic as most of the population have antibodies from vaccination.

“Most of our population is vaccinated even though our antibodies are waning… For that there is some protection for most of us. If we have a wave, there will be an increase in cases but mild cases.”

She however chided the public for their lax attitude to testing for COVID-19, citing the recent rise in brought-in-dead cases among Malaysians. 

“They think it is better to not get tested than to get tested, because they don’t want to be labelled as COVID-positive and to be in isolation. They prefer to not go through the whole process, and rather not take the test,” Dr Sharifah said. 

This, according to her, put at risk those with compromised immune systems and the elderly to COVID-19 infections. She also encouraged the Ministry of Health to restart efforts to reeducate the public about the dangers of COVID-19 infection and best practices. 

Vaccines are still the most effective way to combat COVID-19 infections, she stressed, emphasising that there is a new bivalent vaccine being developed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections. 

Asked about her thoughts on whether the public should wait for the bivalent vaccine or take the current available vaccines, Dr Sharifah stressed that the best vaccine is the one that is available.

Just get the vaccine now so that you will boost your immune system. Because when the bivalent vaccine comes we don’t know how the government will distribute it. Is it only for a certain part of the population or all the population? We don’t know.

But there is a silver lining to the pandemic for Dr Sharifah. She believes that Malaysians have learned a lot of useful lessons from their time battling COVID-19. 

Chief among which has been a greater understanding of the importance of basic personal hygiene, and staying home when ill to protect others from disease. 

She also pointed to the important steps taken in investing in vaccines and infectious disease research in Malaysia due the lessons learned from the pandemic. 

“Before this it was not important in Malaysia. Before this it was all concentrated on the non-communicable disease. Now that COVID is here, the government has acknowledged its importance and that is a good thing for Malaysia.”

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