The first batch of Covid-19 vaccines from China’s Sinovac could be delivered to Hong Kong as early as Friday, and the city’s aviation industry workers would be among the first groups in line to be vaccinated a week later, the Post has learned.
The news came as the number of new coronavirus infections bounced back to 16 on Wednesday after two straight days of cases in single digits, with some patients identified as having joined gatherings over the Lunar New Year holiday.
The latest infections, recorded on the sixth day of Lunar New Year, took the city’s overall tally to 10,812, with 197 deaths, including two more patients.
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Ten of the 12 new locally transmitted cases were from unknown sources. The four other infections were imported from Austria, Pakistan and the Philippines. More than 10 people tested preliminary-positive.
A day after a panel of experts advising the government unanimously recommended the Sinovac vaccine for emergency use following a review of new data, more details of the impending roll-out emerged as a source told the Post that the first batch could arrive on Friday at the earliest.
The vaccine was awaiting Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee’s approval before it could be shipped from mainland China, the source said.
Hong Kong’s universal vaccination programme had been expected to start this month after the Lunar New Year break, but has since been delayed until early March.
Carers of those aged 60 or above – up to two per elderly person – will be among those given vaccination priority to avoid transmission to senior citizens, according to another source. Outreach teams will also go directly to care homes for the elderly to administer shots.
No walk-in services will be available at vaccination centres, but members of the public will have the option to book a slot online or in person at post offices or Housing Authority offices.
Jabs will be administered at 20 different facilities, including community centres, Hospital Authority clinics and private hospitals.
According to another source, the government has asked local airlines to submit employee lists, and pilots would be given first priority on a voluntary basis.
Cockpit crews are the busiest of all frontline staff and have been integral to supporting the flow of air cargo, with passenger flights crippled by the pandemic
Aircrew are seen as a potential risk for importing the virus and countries such as Singapore have prioritised such workers for vaccinations.
The government is expected to confirm and reveal more detail of the roll-out on Thursday.
In another development, the Food and Health Bureau wrote to the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee on Wednesday to seek HK$1 billion to set up an indemnity fund for adverse events following Covid-19 immunisation.
The bureau said the fund would cover indemnities offered to Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers under bilateral purchase agreements, and to provide support to individuals who had proof of suffering serious adverse events associated with administered vaccine. It suggested paying HK$2.5 million for those aged under 40 who died, and HK$2 million for those above that age.
The maximum payout to those aged under 40 who suffered injuries associated with listed serious adverse events would be HK$3 million, and HK$2.5 million for those above that age.
The committee will discuss the matter next Friday.
Earlier on Wednesday, members of the government’s advisory panel defended the decision to recommend the Sinovac jab for emergency use, saying the drug’s efficacy outweighed the risks despite concerns it was not as effective as expected.
Panel convenor Professor Wallace Lau Chak-sing told a radio programme that vaccines were a good way to control the spread of Covid-19, which was ongoing more than a year after it first emerged despite the implementation of social-distancing measures and strict travel restrictions.
“If the vaccine can help control the spread of the coronavirus, then that brings a lot of benefits. Fewer people will fall ill and be hospitalised. We will be able to go back to school, work, and return to our normal lives,” he said. “If it is safe and meets the World Health Organization’s [50 per cent effectiveness] threshold, then we believe all the benefits outweigh the risks.”
The most recent data provided by Sinovac – based on trials conducted among the 18-60 age group – showed an overall efficacy rate of 50.66 per cent. That number rose to 62.3 per cent after the second dose was administered four weeks later.
Lau explained that the results suggested that only one in three vaccinated people would get infected, compared to two in three if unvaccinated.
“We’re not saying that just half of [the city’s] 7.5 million population will be protected, it’s about the comparison between the vaccinated and placebo groups,” he said.
BioNTech’s jab, the first to receive approval for emergency use in the city, conferred a 95 per cent protection rate against Covid-19 after two doses.
Meanwhile, social-distancing rules are set to be relaxed on Thursday after a recent downtrend in cases. But Wednesday’s increase sparked fears the latest phase of the epidemic might not be over yet.
“Some of the infected persons have been to multiple gatherings over the course of a few days, meeting dozens of people,” Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan of the Centre for Health Protection said.
Among the 10 untraceable cases was a 34-year-old unemployed man who had joined gatherings during the Lunar New Year holiday. About 50 of his close contacts would be quarantined.
A 36-year-old office worker also had an untraceable infection, and about 20 of his close contacts would be quarantined. Others infected included a chef in Tsuen Wan and a kitchen worker in Mong Kok, resulting in about 20 of their colleagues being quarantined.
About 80 residents and staff would also be isolated after a caretaker at the Yuen Yuen Nursing Home Cum Day Care Centre for the Elderly in Kwun Tong was infected.
Another firefighter at Kwai Chung fire station and a close contact of one infected earlier were also confirmed cases. The health authorities ordered that anyone who had visited the station in the past two weeks for over two hours would have to get tested.
Infectious disease expert Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan noted the city only managed two straight days of single-digit infection counts and said officials had to continue monitoring the trend over the next two weeks to see if there would be a rebound from Lunar New Year gatherings.
“The government should tighten social-distancing rules if we see a continuous rise in cases, but the extent of the measures depends on whether the rebound occurs in specific industries such as construction sites, or in certain living environments,” Tsang said.
Separately, an operation in Tsim Sha Tsui by law enforcement agencies found about 60 people had violated a compulsory testing notice out of around 290 residents checked at Tsim Sha Tsui Mansion. Across the road, at Mirador Mansion, more than 60 violations were uncovered among about 420 residents checked.
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