Perspective: You may be safe but what about others?

Perspective: You may be safe but what about others?

KUALA LUMPUR: The government has eased certain restrictions for fully-vaccinated individuals in seven states that are still under phase one of the National Recovery Plan (PPN) due to the impressive impact of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK) and, perhaps, as an “incentive” to those who have yet to receive the vaccine.

Among the latest privileges granted to the vaccinated community are restaurant dine-ins and allowing them to participate in non-contact sports, recreation, picnicking and camping activities.

“This can be considered a ‘gift’ after three months of being under phase one which is tied to various restrictions,” said journalist Nura Khadeeja Farhan, 30, who resides in Ampang, Selangor.

Besides Selangor, the other states under phase one of PPN are Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, Johor and Melaka.

The concessions given by the government may placate those experiencing pandemic fatigue as a result of being confined at home for quite some time.

However, not all are overly enthusiastic about the good news. Health experts, in particular, are concerned that the relaxation of restrictions may pave the way for fully-vaccinated people to transmit the virus to their non-vaccinated counterparts, considering that more than 45 percent of the population are still unvaccinated or have only received the first dose.

This does not include children aged 12 to 17 who were only recently allowed to receive the Covid-19 shot.

May cause new transmissions

According to the experts, people who have completed their vaccination can potentially be Covid-19 transmitters if they view the freedom given to them by the government as a ticket to drop their guard when it comes to heeding the standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Pointing out that the nation is straying from the objective of PICK, Universiti Sains Malaysia virologist Associate Prof Dr Yahya Mat Arip said vaccination, which is aimed at saving lives, can potentially be seen by some as a licence to secure certain privileges.

“I would like to stress here that people who have completed their vaccination can still be infected (by the virus) if they ignore the SOPs and, subsequently, can also infect others.

“We would not want fully-vaccinated people to be a source of Covid-19 transmissions because if this happens, then people will have a negative perception of our vaccination efforts… the (immunisation) programme is supposed to prevent transmissions, and not be a source of transmissions,” he told Bernama.

The Ministry of Health has reiterated that the vaccinated can still be infected but may only experience mild symptoms or remain asymptomatic. Unfortunately, they can infect others.

Are others safe?

More worryingly, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah was reported as saying that the highly aggressive Delta Covid-19 variant can not only spread within 15 seconds but high levels of the virus have been detected in the noses of people who were vaccinated as well as not vaccinated.

He said the virus replicating in the noses of vaccinated persons is as infectious as that in non-vaccinated individuals.

“This means that vaccinated persons can spread the virus and infect others,” he said in a post in his personal Facebook account recently.

Health experts and the authorities have repeatedly raised the issue of people failing to comply with SOPs, mainly due to pandemic fatigue or the assumption that they are “fully protected” post-vaccination. This is the reason why breakthrough infections are being reported among the vaccinated. A breakthrough infection occurs when an individual who has received the Covid-19 vaccine contracts the virus more than 14 days after they have been fully vaccinated.

Elaborating on the Delta variant, Dr Yahya said it can generate a viral load of up to 1,260 times more than the virus that originated in Wuhan, China. This essentially means that people infected by the Delta variant face a much higher risk of developing severe infections.

He said the risk of the original Wuhan Covid-19 variant triggering a severe infection in non-vaccinated individuals is around 16 percent, but their risk of deteriorating to the third, fourth and fifth categories is two to three times higher if they are infected by Delta.

“Based on reports of breakthrough infections among (vaccinated) healthcare workers, it was found that 99 percent of those who were infected were either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. This shows the vaccine is effective but only for the vaccinated, not for those who have not been vaccinated yet. So, are we willing to take the risk (by easing social and economic restrictions for the vaccinated)?

“People (who are fully vaccinated) will go here and there, unaware that they have been infected because of the absence of symptoms. Then, they end up infecting their family members who have yet to receive the vaccine. This is not a question of ‘I am safe (because I’ve been vaccinated)’ but the safety of others,” he added.

Mutation fears

Dr Yahya said one cannot afford to take the Delta strain lightly as it is much more aggressive than other variants of concern (VOC) such as Alpha and Beta and has caused infections to soar in over 100 countries, including Malaysia.

Besides its speed of transmission, the Delta variant also causes more damage to the lungs due to its high viral load.

“According to data, up to Aug 17, 2021, Malaysia recorded 710 cases caused by variants of interest and VOC. Out of this total, 467 were caused by VOC.

“However, I believe that this figure is lower than the actual number because the Delta’s rate of infection is five to eight people, compared with the original Wuhan variant’s 2.4 to 2.6 people, and, furthermore, the rate of genome surveillance (genome sequencing) has been low at around 0.17 per 1,000 positive cases,” he said.

Granting more leeway to vaccinated people, who may include asymptomatic individuals, to go out and unwittingly spread the virus to others gives rise to another concern, namely an increase in the mutation rate which may lead to the emergence of a newer and more dangerous variant.

“Viral mutations occur naturally and are beyond our control. It occurs during the replication process to produce a new strain. The replication process takes place after infection occurs.

“What we’re worried about is that when a virus mutates, a new variant may emerge. We certainly don’t want a new variant to emerge as a result of the large number of infections occurring in Malaysia now,” added Dr Yahya.

These fears, however, can be allayed by encouraging the unvaccinated groups to get the vaccine which, said Dr Yahya, can not only protect people against severe infections but also impede the formation of new variants.

He explained that the antibodies produced by the vaccine can prevent an infection from spreading from one cell to another.

“The fewer the number of infections, the lower the replication process, thus reducing the possibility of a new variant emerging. This is why we need to ensure that as many people as possible get the vaccine.

“In fact, in order to fight the Delta variant more effectively, some countries have altered their vaccine targets from 80 percent of the population to 90 or 95 percent. This is because when more people are vaccinated, the chances of new variants emerging are lower,” he added.