Coronavirus: Hong Kong to start offering Covid-19 booster shots to the elderly, high-risk groups from November 11

·6-min read

Hong Kong will start offering Covid-19 booster shots to the elderly and high-risk groups from November 11, regardless of which vaccine they have received, with bookings set to open this Friday.

Those who have received China’s Sinovac vaccine do not have to be in the vulnerable or high-risk category to be eligible for a third dose, although their cases will be handled on a discretionary basis by on-site staff.

While BioNTech recipients who do not fall in the high-risk category are not eligible for a third dose for now, the German-made vaccine is the booster shot recommended for everyone because it “may elicit a better immune response”.

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Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee on Wednesday announced next week’s launch of the booster shots programme, estimating that 1.86 million people would be eligible for priority access, with the government fully adopting an expert panel’s recent recommendations.

“The joint scientific committee has already said people who have had two doses of Sinovac are recommended to have a third dose. Our first phase is for those high-risk groups to take it first,” Chan added.

She warned that most Hongkongers aged over 80 remained at “very high risk” with just 15 per cent of them inoculated.

Using the epidemic in Singapore from May to September as an example, Chan said death rates between the vaccinated and unvaccinated could differ as much as tenfold, at 2 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.

“Vaccination will help reduce the number of serious cases and the death rate. It will also help avoid overloading the public health care system,” Chan said, adding the virus would spread much faster in a fifth wave of infections – because of the prevalence of more transmissible variants – than previously.

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Both vaccines on offer locally will be available under the booster scheme.

Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, the minister responsible for the vaccination campaign, said bookings at community inoculation centres could be made through the government website. Walk-in services would also be available at nine public hospitals, as well as private hospitals and clinics.

Word of the booster programme came as health officials confirmed three imported Covid-19 cases, involving arrivals from the United States and Britain, bringing Hong Kong’s tally to 12,352, with 213 related deaths.

Last week, two scientific committees advising the government on Covid-19 vaccines jointly recommended that immunocompromised people, the elderly aged 60 or older and workers with high exposure risk to the disease would need a booster shot. The latter group includes health care professionals, cross-border drivers, airport workers, quarantine hotel staff and care home employees.

Those who had received Sinovac jabs were all recommended to get a booster shot even if they did not come under high-risk groups.

The committees also recommended only high-risk groups among those who had taken the BioNTech vaccine should sign up for the booster shot for now.

So far, 4.6 million people, or 68.7 per cent of the eligible population, have received at least one dose of vaccine. The total number of doses administered surpassed 9 million last week.

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On Wednesday, Nip insisted Hong Kong had enough stock for the booster campaign, with 1.7 million BioNTech shots and 4.2 million Sinovac doses remaining, out of the 7.5 million of each procured.

The experts had also suggested that previous recipients of the Sinovac jab could stick with the brand for their booster shot if they were concerned about possible side effects, such as tiredness or muscle pain. But recipients could consider switching to the BioNTech one if they wanted greater protection against Covid-19 as it would raise antibody levels even higher, they said.

On the optimal interval between administering second and third shots, the government adopted the experts’ recommendation of a minimum of four weeks for the immunocompromised, such as cancer patients, as well as people who had undergone organ or bone marrow transplants. The same time frame was also advised for dialysis patients, people with HIV/Aids and those taking drugs that suppress the immune system.

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Immunocompromised patients should bring a medical certificate with them for the third dose. Those aged between 12 and 17 are required to present a consent form signed by their parents.

Templates of both documents can be downloaded from the government website.

For the elderly and high-risk groups, the recommended gap between the second and third shot is six months. They can show their Hong Kong identity card for verification.

Workers at increased risk of Covid-19 exposure can provide job certificates or make a declaration that they work in the relevant trades when they get the booster.

Recovered Covid-19 patients are only required to receive one dose. Health authorities said they should discuss with their doctor whether a second dose was required, and recommended a six-month interval between jabs.

With the influenza season looming, the World Health Organization has said that flu vaccines could be administered at the same time as Covid-19 jabs. But the local experts said they supported maintaining Hong Kong’s existing approach of spreading out the two types of shots by at least two weeks.

Respiratory medicine specialist Dr Leung Chi-chiu welcomed the booster campaign, saying vaccine stocks could be used more efficiently rather than lying idle. “It will also be easier to secure extra supplies heading into next year as world production continues to gear up,” he said.

Giving non-high-risk residents a third dose on a discretionary basis could protect them and the public, he said, as recipients might be travelling abroad and could bring the virus back if their immunity levels were not boosted.

“Some teething problems and confusion at vaccination venues can be expected from some non-prioritised groups seeking a third shot, but they should soon be smoothed out,” Leung said.

Meanwhile, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department announced that the Lunar New Year fair, from January 26 to February 1, would require workers to be fully vaccinated and test negative for the virus. It will also be the third year in a row without dry goods stalls.

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