The abrupt suspension of one of Hong Kong’s two Covid-19 vaccines caused widespread confusion among residents on Wednesday with little information from the government, while some of those who have already managed to get their shots are now concerned about their efficacy.
After a packaging defect was found in a batch of the German-made BioNTech vaccines, Hong Kong temporarily suspended the roll-out of all the shots from the producer as a precautionary measure.
Some of the 21 government-run centres, which opened at 8am, had already vaccinated people using BioNTech doses on Wednesday before they received the suspension notice between 8am and 9am.
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Civil service minister Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who oversees the city’s Covid-19 vaccination drive, admitted there were some communication issues.
“I think it’s because after we received the written notification, we were considering whether vaccination should be suspended. But because there are two batches, we had to confirm which batches are problematic … Theoretically speaking, the batch without these issues can be used,” he said.
Nip added that authorities had to inform the affected vaccination centres one by one, and some centres had continued with administering the doses prior to being informed.
Dr Luk Che-chung, head of the Hong Kong East Cluster of public hospitals, said a vaccination centre in Sai Wan Ho had injected 53 people by the time they received the suspension order. A source said a centre on Hiu Kwong Street, Kwun Tong, had given the doses to more than 140 people before they were told to stop.
Phil Mitchell, 45, who works in the legal industry, took his first dose of the BioNTech jab in Ap Lei Chau on Wednesday morning, shortly before the suspension. Mitchell said he was initially told the centre was closed and his appointment had been postponed, but staff there later allowed him to take the shot.
“I am concerned about the effectiveness of the shot I received. It would be great to have some clarity from the government on this,” he said.
The defects – discovered by frontline doctors and reported to BioNTech – involved eight incidents of cracked vials and 22 issues with air pressure resulting in leaks. A further 16 reports of vial seals being loose or out of position were made, as well as 11 about stains or marks on the exterior of the glass containers.
Of the 585,000 doses of the affected “batch 210102”, about a quarter, or 150,000, had already been consumed, director of health Dr Constance Chan Hon-yee said. Batch 210104, which contains 758,000 doses, was not yet in use and was in storage, she added.
The government said the vaccination would continue with shots of the other brand, Chinese-made Sinovac.
Banker Nicole Yu, 34, said the news of the suspension had prompted her to switch from receiving a BioNTech shot to the one by Sinovac, even though she had initially preferred the German vaccine for its higher efficacy rate.
“I am quite indifferent to which vaccine I get. I just want to get vaccinated as soon as possible since I have already booked a Sinovac slot for Thursday, I won’t change back to BioNTech now even if I could,” she said.
Yu said she was not too concerned about the reports of serious side effects and the deaths of seven people after receiving the Sinovac vaccine. “Every vaccine has side effects, and it is still not proved the deaths are linked to the vaccine,” she said.
So far, one person has died after receiving the BioNTech shot, but it is not yet known whether the deaths are linked to the vaccines.
When news of the suspension broke this morning, dozens of people waiting for their jabs at community vaccination centres refused to leave at first. They did so only nearly an hour after the suspension was announced. Among those hoping they might still get vaccinated were dozens of people at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre in Sai Ying Pun.
Company director Michael, 48, said he decided to head over to the Sai Ying Pun centre from his office across the street after reading the news to see if he could still get the shot.
But when he arrived, there were no employees to explain the situation, and only signboards saying “BioNTech vaccination stopped until further announcement” had been put up.
Michael said his confidence would not be affected. “I have friends who have already got it. It’s just frustrating I can’t when it’s my turn,” he said.
Entrepreneur Annika, 35, who had booked a slot at 11am, said it was frustrating the government had not sent out any text message notification to those who had already reserved their slots.
“I just hope there can be more information. The government has been quite good at sending text message notifications,” she said.
Annika added she would still get the jab once it was available again, saying the defect was just a common occurrence among mass-produced products.
Residents waiting outside the Central Library in Causeway Bay, where Sinovac shots were being offered, were unperturbed by the suspension of BioNTech shots.
A man in his 50s, who only gave his surname Tse, was waiting with his elderly mother to get the Sinovac jab on Wednesday afternoon at the library.
“I chose Sinovac because my mother is older and this vaccine will have less side effects on her,” he said. “The news about BioNTech is not of any concern for me. It just seems like a minor packaging issue anyway,” he added.
Another man, a 60-year old surnamed Hung, said he had always intended to get the Sinovac vaccine and was still ready to go through with it.
“It’s none of my business that BioNTech has been suspended,” he said. He said he chose the Sinovac jab as he wanted to be able to visit his family in mainland China.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung and Kanis Leung
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