Hong Kong will launch its mass vaccination drive against Covid-19 next week, with priority in the queue given to 2.4 million essential frontline workers and those in vulnerable groups, after a million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine are delivered to the city on Friday.
Health authorities announced on Thursday that online bookings would start from next Tuesday, but the city was already facing an uphill battle to achieve herd immunity for a population of 7.5 million, with the latest survey indicating only four in 10 people were willing to be vaccinated.
The first jabs would be administered from next Friday and the vaccination drive would last for up to six months, to be implemented in phases, Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said at a press conference on Thursday.
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Details of the roll-out were revealed as the number of confirmed new infections dropped to eight from 16 the previous day.
Hongkongers in five groups will be given vaccination priority: health workers and others fighting the pandemic; those aged 60 years or above; residents and staff of elderly and disability care homes; those providing essential public services such as disciplined forces, postal staff and hygiene workers; and cross-border transport workers including truck drivers, air and sea crew, and fishermen.
Those aged 70 or above will have the option to bring up to two people with them for coronavirus shots, and most of this demographic are expected to be vaccinated within the next two months.
The first 1 million doses of the mainland-manufactured Sinovac vaccine will arrive on Friday afternoon and will be used to launch the drive, while the first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech jabs are expected by the end of the month.
Appearing with five other top officials in front of a huge digital backdrop titled “Protect yourself and others, get vaccinated”, Nip urged Hongkongers to take the jabs not only for themselves, but their families, community and the city’s health care system.
Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee hailed the development as an important milestone in the year-long fight against the pandemic.
“Covid-19 vaccines are one of the most important means of protecting our health care system from being overwhelmed, and the key to resuming normal life,” she said, adding that both of the vaccines she had approved for the mass roll-out were “safe, effective and with quality guaranteed”.
But questions over public attitude and take-up of the vaccines were immediately raised after a late-January survey of 2,733 residents, the results of which were revealed on Thursday, showed that only four in 10 people were willing to be vaccinated.
Drawing an analogy to a mahjong game of four, Nip said: “If everyone [in the game] gets a jab, they will feel more secure.”
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor took to Facebook to drum up public support by declaring she would take the Sinovac shot herself, in keeping with a promise to go for whichever vaccine arrived in the city first.
When pressed on whether the government did enough to motivate Hongkongers to get a jab, Nip, who is in charge of the roll-out, could not give any firm commitments on whether vaccination would exempt recipients from regular virus screening or lead to the reopening of air and land borders. Officials would rely on experts’ advice on when and how to relax social-distancing measures further, he said.
Under the roll-out plan, jabs will be administered at four types of facilities: 29 community vaccination centres across the city’s 18 districts; more than 1,500 private clinics; 18 general outpatient clinics under the Hospital Authority; and care facilities for the elderly and disabled. The scheme will kick off using Sinovac jabs at five vaccination centres and authority-managed clinics next Friday, with private practitioners receiving their doses early next month.
The remaining 24 community centres will administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires ultra-cold storage and dilution procedures.
Community centres, which will be operated by both the public and private sectors, will run from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week for six months. When booking online, Hongkongers choose the brand of vaccine they want and indicate the preferred time and location for their first and second doses.
Residents will need to bring identity cards and show proof that they belong to a priority group. After inoculation, they will get a paper vaccine card as well as digital proof via the government’s iAM Smart electronic platform.
After the initial roll-out, officials will assess the situation, such as the number of recipients and supply of jabs, to expand the scheme “at an appropriate time” to those aged between 16 and 59 who have chronic illnesses, and eventually to all those aged below 60, Nip said.
Chan said recipients were advised to stay behind for 30 minutes after getting a jab so they could be given medical help should any adverse reactions occur.
The government has set aside HK$1 billion for an indemnity fund to compensate anyone suffering from serious reactions. Those affected would have two years from getting their first jab to file a claim, Chan said, and would not be barred from making a separate civil claim for compensation, although any court-awarded sum would be reduced by the amount of government payout already received.
Chan would not reveal the cost per shot the government paid to manufacturers, citing confidentiality clauses, but said HK$8.4 billion had been earmarked for vaccines, including HK$5 billion for direct purchases from producers such as Sinovac and Pfizer-BioNTech, and HK$2.9 billion projected for the manpower and operational costs of the roll-out.
The health minister’s authorisation of the Sinovac vaccine came two days after experts advising the government unanimously recommended the urgent use of the mainland-produced drug despite concerns the decision was being rushed.
The panel said there was no need to get the endorsement of the World Health Organization first, as clinical trial findings showed the vaccine already met the minimum standards set out by the global body.
New data provided by the biopharmaceutical firm at the request of the government’s advisory panel last week showed an overall efficacy rate of up to 62.3 per cent for the Sinovac vaccine following a second jab.
Panel advisers said the drug’s efficacy outweighed the risks despite concerns it was not as effective as expected.
Authorities had already approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has an efficacy rate of about 95 per cent.
Medical professionals previously expressed doubts over the panel’s decision, as it had not waited for Sinovac to publish its data in a peer-reviewed medical journal as was the case for the BioNTech jab.
China, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia and Turkey were among the first countries to embrace the Sinovac vaccine to inoculate their citizens.
At the press conference, Director of Health Dr Constance Chan Hon-yee revealed that two scientific committees under her department had reviewed trial data and decided those aged above 85 years, very frail residents such as bedridden elderly people, and those with a fever were not advised to get a BioNTech jab.
The panels would meet later this week to determine their advice regarding the Sinovac vaccine, but Chan said current data showed it had lower protection for those aged above 60, and was not suggested for people with severe allergies, pregnant women or those breastfeeding babies.
Respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu believed the government “jumped the gun” with its announcement, as the expert panels could throw the whole plan into chaos if they decided Sinovac jabs were unsuitable for old people. That would force the government to wait for the arrival of the BioNTech vaccine to begin inoculation, and potentially revise its priority groups with fewer available shots that were deemed suitable.
Earlier on Thursday, Dr David Lam Tzit-yuen, president of the pro-government health workers’ group Medical Conscience, warned against getting the new jabs too soon after receiving an inoculation for another disease.
“If residents have taken another kind of vaccination in the past 14 days, they’d better wait two weeks to take the Covid-19 vaccine,” he said.
The Hong Kong Federation of Education workers, meanwhile, urged the government to include teachers in priority groups for vaccination, to create “favourable conditions” for the early reopening of schools.
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