Covid-19 vax blunder: Did we overstock?

Only about half of the total population went for their 1st booster, while only 2.5% took the second 


DUE to poor demand, expired Covid-19 vaccines were destroyed in January. 

On March 15, 2021, then-Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said Malaysia had purchased excessive vaccines to mitigate regulatory approval and risk of delayed delivery. 

This raises the concern of whether the government had purchased an excessive supply of Covid-19 vaccines. Is Malaysia overstocked and what happens to the vaccine in stock? 

Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Dr Muruga Raj Rajathurai said currently Malaysia has a low demand for vaccines compared to during the height of the pandemic. 

As control over the pandemic improved significantly, the demand for jabs has decreased, says Dr Muruga (pic courtesy of MMA)

“Only about half of the total population went for their first booster while only 2.5% took the second,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR). 

In April, Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa said a total of eight million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine are nearing expiry in September. 

Dr Muruga said there have been suggestions to donate these vaccines to countries in need, albeit the authorities only have four months to expedite it before expiration. 

He added that Prime Minister (PM) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s encouragement for people to get boosted was not picking up, hence leading to the unused vaccine. 

According to the Health Ministry’s (MoH) KKMNow website, as of May 4, 86.2% (28 million) of Malaysians had received the first dosage of the vaccination, with 84.4% (27.5 million) receiving the second dose. 

In contrast, 50% (16 million) Malaysians took the first booster, while only 2.5% (820,844) took the second booster. 

“It may be unfair to say that the government acquired too many vaccines. At the time of securing vaccines for the population, the demand was high. There were concerns over vaccine supply due to the high demand as countries began their vaccination programmes. 

“But as control over the pandemic improved significantly, the demand for vaccines (particularly boosters), decreased. Proof of vaccination is also no longer required now for air travel,” he said. 

Review Vaccine Programme 

Malaysian Pharmacists Society president Amrahi Buang said people’s resilience towards Covid-19 encouraged adaptability, driving the country towards the endemic phase despite the virus continuing to mutate. 

Hence, to address the issue, he said that the population needs to be vaccinated from time to time to protect themselves, adding that the new variant may not be harmful, but is more contagious. 

“We need vaccines to protect the population, especially the vulnerable ones like geriatrics, aborigines and people with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). So, the question is not the oversupply of vaccines but encouraging the population to be vaccinated. But at what cost? Will the government be in a position to give free vaccines?” he said to TMR. 

Amrahi believes that the NPRA should conduct a proper registration of the current Covid-19 vaccines (pic: Bernama)

Nonetheless, he added that the National Covid-19 Vaccination Programme needs to be reviewed and revised. 

Furthermore, he believed that the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA) should conduct a proper registration of the current Covid-19 vaccines, as the existing conditional registration should have expired by now. 

TMR also reached out to the health minister, however, was unable to receive any comments at press time. 

Nevertheless, following a Dewan Rakyat session in February, Dr Zaliha said a White Paper on the procurement of the Covid-19 vaccine would be tabled next month during the next parliamentary session. 

This is owing to the PM’s request to the MoH to present a White Paper outlining vaccine procurement and related expenses, which was allegedly partially non-compliant and signed off on by the minister without the consent of the Attorney General. 

She did, however, emphasise that the post-ponement of the White Paper is not intended to point fingers at the previous administration, but rather to fix the process in the future. 

Initially, Covid-19 vaccination in Malaysia started when the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (NCIP) was rolled out in early 2021 once the agreement was signed in 2020 and early 2021 with China’s Sinovac and CanSino, UK’s AstraZeneca, US’ Pfizer, as well Russia’s Sputnik V. 

The programme is administered by the Special Committee for Ensuring Access to Covid-19 Vaccine Supply (JKJAV) which serves to ensure the procurement of Covid-19 vaccine supply for the country can be carried out smoothly. 

As of June 21, 2021, Malaysia had received vaccines from five producers, namely 44.8 million doses from Pfizer/BioN-Tech; Oxford/AstraZeneca (12.8 million); Sinovac (12.4 million); CanSino (3.5 million) and Sputnik V (Gam-Covid-Vac) (6.4 million) as reported by The Edge.

According to the Covid19 Vaccine Tracker website, vaccines approved for use in Malaysia include Moderna (Spikevax), Pfizer/BioNTech (Comirnaty), CanSino (Convidecia), Janssen’s Johnson & Johnson (Jcovden), Oxford/AstraZeneca (Vaxzevria), Bharat Biotech (Covaxin), Sinopharm (Covilo) and Sinovac (CoronaVac). 

However, only four vaccines were approved for clinical trials — Pfizer/BioNTech, CanSino (Convidecia Air), ReiThera (GRAd-COV2) — and inactivated Vero Cells from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. 

Pharmaniaga Fiasco 

Another vaccine fiasco situation worth noting is the Pharmaniaga Bhd, where the company saw a net loss of RM607.32 million in the financial year 2022 (FY22), compared to a net profit of RM172.15 million in FY21. 

Its revenue also dropped 27.1% to RM3.51 billion compared to RM4.82 billion in FY21. According to its Bursa filing, the loss was caused by the government’s sluggish demand for Covid-19 vaccinations.

To make matters worse, Pharmaniaga’s FY22 had also pushed the company into Bursa’s Practice Note 17 (PN17) status. 

According to CodeBlue, Pharmaniaga has had an exclusive government concession for more than 25 years to purchase, store, supply and distribute over 700 pharmaceutical products on the Approved Products Purchase List (APPL), as well as to be responsible for the logistics and distribution of these medicines. 

Pharmaniaga has had an exclusive govt concession for more than 25 years to purchase, store, supply and distribute over 700 pharmaceutical products on APPL (pic: Bernama)

Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy CEO Azrul Mohd Khalib said the government’s reliance on exclusive concessions granted to individual government-linked companies (GLCs) has resulted in an unhealthy reliance on the company, making those like Pharmaniaga appear indispensable and “too big to fail”, putting Malaysia’s public healthcare system at risk of significant disruption if these GLCs run into financial trouble. 

He added that the government has yet to reduce its reliance on these arrangements and that the lack of progress has deterred potential competitors from investing in or participating in the bidding process for the APPL. 

“Reforms also include removing dependence on tender agents, acting as middlemen within the procurement process, who charge commission for their services and increase the cost of medicines. 

“Allowing suppliers to negotiate and bid directly with the government could potentially enable millions in public funds saved, lower prices, increase cost-effectiveness and for newer therapies to be made available for patients. It will introduce improved diversity of suppliers and reduce vulnerability,” he said in a statement in March. 

Model Country for Covid-19 Vaccine Management, Rollout

In comparison with Malaysia’s vaccine rollout, the Quarts website in January 2021 identified Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as the best countries with a higher proportion of their population vaccinated. 

It said the Middle Eastern countries vaccinated 20.93%, 10.99% and 5.25% of their populations respectively, while the US, Denmark and the UK lagged at 2.02%, 1.98% and 1.94% respectively. 

Meanwhile, the remainder of the globe averages 0.5% (based on United Nations World Population Prospects population estimates). 

Quarts also identified that the success factor of the vaccine rollout was determined by structural factors such as the countries’ smaller population, early approval of the vaccines compared to other countries and population attitude fostered by the government towards the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. 

Nonetheless, as of May 4, 2023, Our World in Data said 13.38 billion doses have been administered globally, with 85,019 doses administered daily. 

This also accounts for 70% of the global population receiving at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccination, as well as 29.8% of people in low-income countries receiving at least one dose. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition