People enter a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccination centre set up at a community centre in Singapore on October 7, 2021. ( AFP / Roslan Rahman)

Singapore doctor rejects 'comments' doubting efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines in elderly

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Multiple Facebook posts claim a Singapore doctor told Chinese media that people aged over 60 who take routine medication may find it reduces the effectiveness of their Covid-19 vaccines. However, the doctor and the clinic at which he works have said that he has never made such comments. AFP found no record of him publicly making that claim.

The lengthy claim was shared in this Facebook post on October 26, 2021.

Screenshot of the misleading Facebook post taken on November 22, 2021

The post claims that it is translating parts of an interview given in Mandarin by Dr Leong Hoe Nam, who is described in the post as "a public health expert in Singapore".

It does not provide a link to any interview.

The post reads in part: "He said those infected by Covid19 although fully vaccinated, are the older people (aged above 60 plus). This is because these peoples' (sic) antibodies are very Low after a lapse of time as most of them are taking medications (e.g. for diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, heart cindition (sic) etc). These medications tend to neutralise the vaccine efficacy."

It goes on to say that Leong had said it was important for older people to receive a booster jab.

The post warns people to wear masks to protect against the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus.

It describes the Delta variant as "undetectable" and harder to test for with nasal swabs. It also says that the Delta variant is "more Virulent with a higher Death rate".

The post alleges that Leong had said he had seen patients without fever or pain but who had been diagnosed with "chest pneumonia".

The same claim was also shared here, here and here on Facebook without any links to the Chinese media where the doctor is alleged to have spoken.

'False information'

Dr Leong Hoe Nam is an infectious diseases specialist at the Rophi Clinic at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital in Singapore.

In an email to AFP, Leong highlighted the parts of the misleading claim that he said accurately reflected comments he had made in multiple interviews.

The highlighted parts included the assertion that people's antibodies are low after a lapse of time; that senior citizens should take the booster jab; and that people should take precautions including wearing masks and social distancing.

When asked by AFP if routine medication such as those for diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and heart conditions would affect vaccine efficacy, he responded "No".

He added: "I have never said things like medications will suppress your immunity / response against the vaccine."

The Rophi Clinic issued this statement on its Facebook account on September 25, 2021 saying that Leong had not made the comments attributed to him in the misleading post.

“This is to state categorically that Dr Leong has never said what was shared. There is a lot of false information. This is a fake news information that is spreading disinformation that serves to hurt the covid 19 epidemic response of Singapore, and the reputation of Dr Leong Hoe Nam," the statement reads in part.

A keyword search of Chinese language media by AFP found no reference to Leong saying that routine medications taken by the elderly counteract the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines.

Routine medications

An explainer from Meedan's Health Desk -- which responds to journalists' queries on public health issues -- states that: "COVID-19 vaccines are not impacted by the large majority of prescription and over-the-counter medications people may take."

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises against stopping routine medication in order to receive a vaccine.

It states on its website: “For most people, it is not recommended to avoid, discontinue, or delay medications that you are routinely taking for prevention or treatment of other medical conditions around the time of COVID-19 vaccination."

It goes on to say: "Most people who take medication can get a COVID-19 vaccine."

The CDC adds that people taking medication to suppress their immune system should talk to their healthcare provider about "what is currently known and not known about the effectiveness of getting a Covid-19 vaccine and the best timing for receiving one.”

Some studies have suggested that Covid-19 vaccines may be less effective in people with weaker immune systems including those with blood-related cancer and chronic inflammatory disease.

The American Cancer Society also notes here that the vaccine may be less effective in cancer sufferers with weakened immune systems and those receiving treatment such as chemotherapy, which can also affect the immune system.

Dr Leong told AFP that chemotherapy could affect the vaccine's effectiveness. "Chemotherapy weakens the immune system, and in turn, your immune response after a vaccination," he said.

Delta variant

The Delta variant was first documented in India in October 2020, according to the World Health Organization.

The claim that it is undetectable and hard to test for is false.

AFP previously debunked the same misleading claim on the Delta variant's symptoms and testability here.

Experts say patients infected with the Delta variant show similar symptoms to those infected with other Covid-19 variants, and the symptoms can be detected through nasal swab tests, AFP previously reported.

The post's claim that the Delta variant is more "virulent" reflects conclusions by numerous public health bodies. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has said that the Delta variant is "twice as transmissible as the original strain".

Both the CDC and Yale Medicine have said that some data has suggested that the Delta variant could result in more severe illness than prior strains in unvaccinated people.

This Canadian study published on October 25, 2021 suggested that there was an increased risk of severe illness and death from Delta, in comparison with earlier strains of the virus.