Health experts have suggested selling millions of Hong Kong’s unused Covid-19 vaccines or pausing the phased supply from manufacturers to minimise waste, as the government explores donating the shots while expiry dates loom.
Nearly 4 million jabs from Chinese producer Sinovac and Germany’s BioNTech have arrived in the city since February, but about 2 million of them are still languishing in storage amid a sluggish inoculation campaign.
Three months into the vaccination drive, only about 1.28 million people, or 17 per cent of residents, have taken their first dose. Around 921,500 have received their second shot.
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William Chui Chun-ming, president of the Society for Hospital Pharmacists, believed the city faced three choices – to either dispose of the leftover doses by incineration, or donate or resell them to other countries.
Chui’s personal preference though was to sell them to coronavirus-stricken countries in the region, such as India, Pakistan, Nepal or the Philippines.
“Those countries are short of jabs but not money. We can get some cash back to purchase second-generation vaccines when they become available in the future,” he said.
But infectious disease expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu believed Hong Kong could simply ask for a pause in the phased delivery of vaccines to avoid facing the dilemma of dumping or selling shots.
The city has purchased 7.5 million shots of Covid-19 vaccines each from BioNTech and Sinovac, enough to cover the entire population of 7.5 million people. The cost has never been disclosed.
Health authorities have administered about 1.25 million of nearly 2 million BioNTech doses and 953,300 shots of more than 2 million Sinovac ones.
The BioNTech vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, and each shot must be used within six months. Sinovac doses can last more than a year.
Authorities said in April a previous order for 7.5 million doses from Britain’s AstraZeneca was scrapped.
The government announced on Tuesday an extension of the vaccination programme to cover visitors from mainland China holding two-way permits and asylum seekers who were already in the city.
Chui said the looming expiration dates had prompted authorities to ramp up the inoculation drive in recent days.
Disposing of the shots would be a headache, according to Chui, as they could not be sent to landfill but must be incinerated to avoid contaminating the environment with the viral ribonucleic acid they contained.
The government confirmed late on Tuesday night the current stock of BioNTech vaccines would expire by mid-August.
Authorities said they would discuss with pharmaceutical firms how to proceed, with one scenario involving delaying some orders or not taking delivery. But the government would also explore donating the shots to countries in need through the World Health Organization (WHO).
“As it takes time for the production of vaccines, quality control, and transport and logistics … even if the demand for vaccines by members of the public suddenly surges later on, it would not be possible for the relevant vaccines to be replenished within this year,” a spokesman from the Food and Health Bureau said in a statement.
The United States last week announced it would distribute 80 million doses around the world, as it countered similar efforts by China and Russia in what is viewed by observers as vaccine diplomacy.
Chui said the US, which has a growing stockpile of Covid-19 vaccines, had shared its excess AstraZeneca jabs with Canada, an example that Hong Kong could consider following.
Asked whether he believed the amount of unused vaccines in the city could put it in a bad position to secure second-generation shots in the future, Chui said the prospect was unlikely as procurement largely depended on which country put in the order first.
Leung, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, believed the city did not have to rush to a decision at this time, as there were still nearly three months to go until the expiry date for the BioNTech shots.
He also pointed out that only a fraction of the German jabs had arrived in accordance with the phased delivery plan, which meant the leftovers were not a lot, and future deliveries could be adjusted or delayed according to Hong Kong’s needs.
Concerns about handling unused vaccine shots are not limited to the city. Hesitancy in some African nations over taking the shots and a short window before expiration has led to the wasting of tens of thousands of doses.
Health authorities in Malawi last week dumped nearly 20,000 shots after they expired in mid-April. They were part of a batch of 102,000 doses donated by the African Union in late March.
The country of about 20 million people has also received around 400,000 AstraZeneca shots from the Covax Facility initiative – a WHO-backed global effort to share vaccines with poorer nations – and the Indian government. Malawi has administered at least 340,000 jabs so far.
South Sudan has also said it would dispose of about 59,000 AstraZeneca doses supplied by the African Union in late March after they expired in April.
In Taiwan, health officials raised concerns last month over a large proportion of the 310,000 AstraZeneca jabs it had received for its population of 24 million going to waste due to a sluggish vaccination drive. Batches expire by June, although the inoculation rate has picked up following the latest surge in infections.
Denmark was seeking to share its unused AstraZeneca vaccines with other countries after it suspended use amid fears of side-effects including blood clots.
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