If vaccination was an Olympic sport, Malta would be a gold medallist, Health Minister Chris Fearne wryly said during a recent interview on CNBC.
And he is right to boast. Recent statistics show that Malta has given at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose to just over 39% of its people, a higher rate than countries like the US and Chile, which have been widely praised internationally as success stories.
Although it trails the UK in terms of total doses, it has overtaken them when it comes to the percentage of people who have been fully vaccinated – it’s 16.2% in Malta and 11.3% in the UK.
So why has Malta’s vaccine strategy been so successful and what can other countries learn from it?
1. Ordering as many vaccines as possible
From the very start of the pandemic, before Malta even confirmed its first COVID-19 case, Fearne started pressuring the European Commission to set up a joint procurement mechanism to negotiate contracts with pharmaceutical companies for any future vaccines on the market.
When this mechanism was eventually set up, Malta made full use of it, acquiring as many vaccines as it was allowed to, with limitations set on member states to acquire doses proportionate to their population. Some countries opted not to take up their full population-based allocation.
Malta also made sure to snatch up any additional doses the EC put up for availability.
As a result, Malta has ordered around two million vaccine doses, more than enough to vaccinate its entire population twice over.
While this surely came with a hefty price tag, the end result was that Malta’s vaccination strategy wasn’t too impacted by production delays as other European countries were.
2. Ordering doses from as many distributors as possible
So far, Malta has secured doses from every vaccine that has been approved by the European Medicines Agency, ordering around one million doses from AstraZeneca, 830,000 from Pfizer and Moderna combined, and 250,000 doses from Johnson and Johnson, which is a single-shot vaccine.
Last month, Fearne urged the EU to start negotiating with Russia from now for the potential procurement of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, pending its assessment by the EMA.
Malta’s plan was to ensure it doesn’t put all of its eggs in one basket and to secure enough vaccines for everyone in case problems emerged with one or more of them.
3. Always following EMA guidance on vaccines
When fears were first raised about potential links between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots, several European countries, such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy, suspended their rollout of this vaccine.
However, Malta has so far followed advice issued by the EMA and not individual countries, and the EMA said from the start that the AstraZeneca vaccine was both safe and effective.
This decision paid off, and other European countries ended up resuming its vaccine rollout after the EMA reiterated its stance in favour of it.
In terms of a ‘vaccine race’, Malta’s decision allowed it to keep on galloping ahead while other European countries slowed down.
4. Its small size, coupled with a proper logistical plan
Malta’s small size gave it an advantage in terms of organising the logistics of vaccine administration – in fact, other small islands such as Jersey, Gibraltar the Falkland Islands, the Cayman Islands and Maldives are also doing extremely well.
It makes sense – the smaller a country, the easier it is to organise a vaccine drive that reaches everyone.
Besides this natural advantage, Malta clearly had a plan in motion in terms of organising the logistics of the distribution, which kicked into motion as soon as the first doses arrived.
Around 40 vaccination centres were set up in recent months, with more opening by the day, both at traditional spots, such as health centres and Mater Dei, and more unconventional ones, such as the headquarters of the Armed Forces and police and the University of Malta.
This means that several vaccinations can take place at the same time, with the state utilising as many human resources as possible, including nursing and dentistry students and staff.
GPs will also be allowed to start vaccinating people once the vaccine becomes available to the general public, with around 90 family doctors signing up to the programmes as of 26th March.
5. A lack of vaccine scepticism
Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci had predicted back in September that Malta was unlikely to face a significant wave of COVID-19 vaccine scepticism, seeing as the country has traditionally had a very high vaccine uptake and not much anti-vaccine lobbying has taken root.
Compare that to the likes of France, where a survey found around half the population might refuse to get vaccinated, or Serbia, which has started inviting people from neighbouring countries to get vaccinated for free, reportedly due to an increasingly vocal anti-vaccine movement at home.
Other than some concern at the AstraZeneca vaccine, this sentiment hasn’t been seen much in Malta so far, and if anything the country has had to contend with squabbles over who should get vaccinated first.
6. Constant motivation
— Chris Fearne (@chrisfearne) April 12, 2021
Chris Fearne and Prime Minister Robert Abela have often been criticised at home for giving people false hope about the end of the pandemic – quotes like ‘we have won the war’ and ‘the waves are in the sea’ are guaranteed to live long in Maltese political folklore.
It’s a tricky balance to strike, but you cannot ignore the importance of keeping a nation hopeful and motivated when everything around them looks bleak, and the best way to do this is to give people a tangible target to look forward to.
As such, the government is publicly celebrating every vaccine milestone as another step towards that elusive normality – the first elderly person vaccinated, the first thousand people vaccinated, the first 20,000.
Even the recent ‘bad news’ of a second quasi-lockdown was cushioned with the good news that the country is exceeding its own vaccination targets.
The strategy is simple: the more people believe that taking the vaccine will result in life returning to normal, the more people will take it.
And with studies from global vaccination leaders Israel indicating that the country may be close to reaching herd immunity, the light at the end of the tunnel could be extremely close.