Coronavirus: Hong Kong experts push for Johnson & Johnson vaccine to replace AstraZeneca shots after blood clot report; city confirms 10 cases, 8 imported

Kathleen Magramo
·6-min read

Hong Kong medical experts have called on the government to replace its procurement of AstraZeneca Covid-19 shots with jabs developed by Johnson & Johnson amid safety concerns over a possible link between the British-Swedish vaccine and blood clots.

Their advice came on Thursday as the city confirmed 10 coronavirus cases, eight of which were imported, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia.

The sole local untraceable case was a 70-year-old resident of Block 3 of Oi Fai House in Tuen Mun’s Yau Oi Estate, where another infection had been confirmed the previous day.

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The new cases raised the city’s overall tally to 11,548, with 205 related deaths.

On Wednesday, a European Medicines Agency (EMA) investigation into the AstraZeneca vaccine concluded that “unusual blood clots with low blood platelets should be listed as very rare side effects”.

Britain subsequently said it would offer those aged below 30 an alternative Covid-19 vaccine because of the new evidence.

Two experts in Hong Kong on Thursday urged the government to look into replacing the AstraZeneca shots with the coronavirus vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, which has been found to be 72 per cent effective after just one dose based on the latest clinical trial data from the United States.

Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert from Chinese University and government pandemic adviser, suggested local authorities dump their entire order of 7.5 million AstraZeneca shots.

Hui told a radio programme the AstraZeneca vaccine “would not be a good option” based on the links to blood clots and recent findings that the jabs had an efficacy rate of only about 10 per cent against the new South African coronavirus variant.

Hui said the government should replace the shots with second-generation vaccines offering better protection against mutated Covid-19 strains.

His recommendation came after Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) revealed that 79 people had suffered rare blood clots after receiving the AstraZeneca jab, including 19 who died.

As of the end of March, about 20.2 million AstraZeneca doses had been administered, and the regulator estimated that the overall risk of developing blood clots was about four people per million.

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Elsewhere, South Korea on Wednesday suspended the use of AstraZeneca jabs for people under 60 amid the growing safety concerns.

As the manufacturers of the vaccine developed by Oxford University and British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca had not yet applied for its emergency use in Hong Kong, Hui suggested the government could revisit its decision to use it.

“A year ago, governments around the world were not able to predict which vaccine technology would be successful when they entered into purchase agreements, which is why they split orders from different manufacturers,” Hui said.

Another approach would be to halve Hong Kong’s order of the AstraZeneca vaccine, said William Chui Chun-ming, president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists.

Chui said scrapping the order entirely might violate the purchase agreement signed by the government and the vaccine maker. Halving the order would allow the Hong Kong government to fulfil its part of the purchase deal while sourcing other vaccines.

He was also concerned that even the slim possibility of developing blood clots would spook a lot of people from taking the AstraZeneca jabs, leaving many unused and wasted.

“Hongkongers tend to be more concerned about vaccine side effects, even if they are rare,” Chui said, noting the rarity of the blood clots.

He added a disclaimer should be added if the vaccine was rolled out in the city.

Both Chui and Hui called on the government to replace the AstraZeneca order with the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, in a bid to avoid adverse reactions and to make better use of the city’s inoculation programme resources.

“Johnson & Johnson would be a good alternative, because it is a single dose vaccine, and shown to be effective against the South African variant strain,” Chui said.

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Hong Kong, with a population of 7.5 million, has so far ordered 22.5 million vaccine doses from three suppliers.

The city ordered 7.5 million doses each of the Sinovac, Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines, but only the first two have been granted official government approval for emergency use.

The Sinovac and BioNTech vaccines are already being administered in the city, while the AstraZeneca shots were expected to be delivered in mid-2021.

Since Hong Kong’s vaccination programme began in late February, about 700,100 doses have been administered to the public.

As of Thursday, 529,400 people, or 7.1 per cent of Hongkongers, had received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Of those, some 170,700, amounting to 2.3 per cent of the population, had also taken their second jab.

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Separately, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Thursday morning expressed her dissatisfaction with the city’s low vaccination rate at a Legislative Council meeting.

“It’s not ideal that currently only over 500,000 residents have taken their first jab since we kicked off the vaccination programme, especially when we consider the city has enough vaccine and related services,” she told lawmakers.

“I am also curious why residents are not eager to take the jabs, and am willing to take advice to [boost the injection rate] if legislators have any.”

Lam said that apart from encouraging restaurant workers to get vaccinated by freeing recipients from the obligation of taking virus tests every 14 days, she had also encouraged schools to get their teachers to do the same to resume full class sizes.

She also hinted that the current programme which allowed Hongkongers returning from Guangdong province – holding negative Covid-19 test results – to be exempted from 14 days of quarantine would be extended to other mainland areas.

“We will also allow some quotas for mainlanders to come to Hong Kong without the need of quarantine,” she added. “I have a bucket list of incentives and will announce the measures soon.”

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