Hong Kong health authorities will consider offering Covid-19 vaccines to children aged 12 to 15 if scientific research shows inoculation is safe and effective for them, officials have said, while revealing they are seeking clinical data from the maker of the BioNTech jab.
The news on Wednesday came as an academic reported that no coronavirus traces were detected in the latest gene sequence analysis on a sample from a four-year-old boy earlier thought to be infected.
Authorities said his case was still being investigated.
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Hong Kong on Wednesday confirmed just one imported Covid-19 case, involving a 28-year-old seafarer from India, marking four days in a row without an untraceable local infection. Fewer than five people tested preliminary-positive.
Addressing the potential extension of vaccines to younger age groups, Undersecretary for Food and Health Dr Chui Tak-yi said scientists would be tasked to study the efficacy and safety of giving children the jabs.
“If there is sufficient data showing that lowering the age group will be equally effective and safe, the government will definitely consider it, as it will help increase the vaccination coverage,” Chui said.
“We are getting information … on the scientific data and all the supporting figures. We will submit those figures once we have them, and pass them to the advisory panel [on vaccines] for further deliberations. The government will proceed accordingly.”
The University of Hong Kong was also conducting a study on Covid-19 vaccinations among secondary school pupils. The trial is recruiting 125 children for each of the two vaccines currently used in the city, and Chui said the government would consider those findings when they were available.
He added the government would follow up on ensuring younger residents had enough time to get vaccinated if a decision were finalised.
Currently, the German-made BioNTech vaccine is given only to those aged 16 and above, while those taking the Chinese-made Sinovac jab must be at least 18.
Officials also sought to address public concerns over vaccine safety by presenting statistics which continued to show jabs did not increase the rates of overall death or serious conditions.
As of Sunday, the Department of Health received about 2,890 reports on adverse incidents following vaccination, or 0.15 per cent of all doses administered in the city, with most being mild cases.
Twenty people died within 14 days of a jab, representing 0.001 per cent of total doses administered. Among all 32 deaths following vaccinations recorded as of last Sunday, an expert committee monitoring the inoculation roll-out concluded seven were not linked to the jabs, with another 21 cases also unrelated to vaccines in preliminary findings. The other four were pending assessment.
From February 26, when the city’s vaccination campaign started, until last Sunday, 0.27 deaths were recorded for every 10,000 people among the inoculated group, while the figure was 13.61 for non-inoculated people.
In the vaccinated population, the rate was 1.51 for strokes, 0.53 for heart attacks and 0.38 for miscarriages – all lower than the numbers for those not inoculated.
“Vaccination didn’t increase the overall rates of death, stroke or acute myocardial infarction [heart attack] … it seems vaccines also won’t affect babies,” said Professor Wallace Lau Chak-sing, convenor of the advisory panel on Covid-19 vaccines.
By Monday, the government’s vaccination indemnity fund – which offers financial support to those with adverse reactions linked to the jabs – had received 16 applications.
Earlier on Wednesday, experts had urged the government to quickly expand the eligible group for vaccinations to children aged 12 to 15, as a way to give extra protection ahead of the next school year which starts in September.
The call followed Singapore authorising the use of BioNTech jabs for that age group on Tuesday, a move earlier taken by the United States, Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
Professor Leo Poon Lit-man, head of the public health laboratory sciences division at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), meanwhile, confirmed to the Post his team could find no trace of the virus in the four-year-old boy listed as an unlinked case on Saturday. His case had prompted quarantine orders for more than 20 people including pupils and staff at his kindergarten.
Poon said there was still a possibility the boy’s sample either carried a low viral load or was contaminated, or the child could have been negative to begin with.
The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) said the boy was still listed as a confirmed case, with an investigation under way.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration has struggled to boost what has been a sluggish vaccination rate, in part due to the seeming lack of an immediate threat of an outbreak. On Tuesday, Lam herself noted the city was nearing its goal of zero infections.
Only about 1.2 million people, or 16 per cent of residents, have received their first dose since the inoculation programme began in late February. As of Wednesday, more than 2.02 million doses in total had been administered.
The US Food and Drug Administration last week approved the emergency use of the BioNTech jab for younger age groups, saying the decision was based on a phase-three clinical trial involving 2,260 children aged 12 to 15.
The trial showed a vaccine efficacy rate of 100 per cent among participants, regardless of Covid-19 infection history, as well as strong antibody responses.
“Currently, there is sufficient evidence showing the vaccine is safe and effective,” said Dr Edmund Lam Wing-wo, a family doctor who sits on the CHP’s vaccine committee.
“If we can vaccinate those students between June and August, protection among secondary school students in the next school year will be more ideal.”
Lam said the vaccination should take place while supplies of the BioNTech vaccine were sufficient. No further shipments are scheduled beyond the end of September.
“The authorities could consider including this group of students into the vaccination group soon,” he said.
Dr Ho Pak-leung, an infectious disease expert from HKU, also agreed Hong Kong should expand the eligible age group for vaccines.
“Data from phase-three studies shows that the vaccine is safe and effective in that age group,” Ho said, adding teenagers should have the right to be inoculated if they chose.
But Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a government pandemic adviser, argued it would be better to wait for the CHP to first obtain data directly from the drug maker before making any policy changes.
Separately, the European Medicines Agency on Monday approved longer storage periods for thawed BioNTech vaccines, saying it could be kept for up to one month at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. Previous directives said it should be used within five days.
William Chui Chun-ming, president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists, said the updated instruction would not extend the overall shelf life of the vaccine. But it would mean more convenient logistics arrangements.
“Delivery between the storage warehouse and various community vaccination centres can be less frequent,” Chui said. “Those centres can also store more vaccines.”
Chui, the undersecretary for health, did not elaborate on how the change in storage criteria would affect the vaccination scheme.
“We will closely monitor this information and get more details from the manufacturer,” he said, adding that more solid data would be passed to the government advisory panel for further deliberation.
As of Wednesday, the city’s tally of confirmed Covid-19 cases stood at 11,827, with 210 related deaths.
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