Hong Kong’s expected Covid-19 vaccine surplus because of a “serious” reluctance among most of the population to get inoculated could weaken its bargaining power to secure enough supplies when needed in the future, the health minister warned on Wednesday.
Officials said they would need drug manufacturers’ consent on what to do with unused shots due to expire within the next couple of months, while considering delaying or even cancelling scheduled vaccine deliveries, and donating surplus doses to countries in need to avoid wastage.
Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee told lawmakers that drug manufacturers and the World Health Organization were likely to assess the take-up rate in Hong Kong under its ongoing inoculation programme when deciding how many doses to send to the city in the future, given persistently tight global supply.
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“In view of the serious vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong, the chance of the procured vaccines being in surplus is high,” Chan said in a written reply to lawmakers.
“As such, in the next round of procurement negotiations with the drug manufacturers, we may not be able to get an outcome as desirable as that in the present round. At this stage, we do not know if we will be able to procure vaccine doses sufficient for the entire Hong Kong population in the next round of procurement.”
Chan’s warning came as the city confirmed one new coronavirus infection involving a 27-year-old woman who arrived from the United Arab Emirates. That took the city’s tally of confirmed infections to 11,836 with 210 related deaths. Fewer than five people tested preliminary-positive.
The government also announced that the current set of social-distancing measures would be extended for another 14 days until June 9 to “guard against any rebound of the epidemic”.
Hong Kong so far has procured and authorised the use of 15 million vaccine doses in total from German manufacturer BioNTech and mainland Chinese firm Sinovac.
Three months on from the start of the mass vaccination roll-out, only about 1.23 million people, or 17 per cent of the city’s population, have received their first dose. More than 934,000 people have taken their second shot.
With some 659,000 BioNTech doses and more than 1 million Sinovac shots still unused, Chan said any course of action for dealing with the excess would require drug manufacturers’ consent.
The government would also have to meet the costs as specified in the purchase agreements, even if the city had not used all the vaccines it planned to, she explained.
Chan also revealed that, based on information from the pharmaceutical firm and media reports, it was very likely people receiving BioNTech vaccines would need to get a booster shot within 12 months after their second dose.
Furthermore, extra shots would be required every year to enhance protection levels, particularly in light of emerging coronavirus variants, she said.
But it remained uncertain whether booster doses would be required for the Sinovac vaccine.
Officials were preparing the provision of booster doses in the next vaccination programme for those who had already received shots in the current phase, she added.
The government has been looking at measures to boost the vaccination rate. On Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the government was considering offering vaccinated civil servants one day of compensation leave, but rejected calls to provide cash handouts or material rewards to boost the rate.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which employs nearly 25,000 full- and part-time staff, was among the latest employers giving perks to vaccinated workers, announcing it would offer up to three days’ leave to those who got shots.
William Chui Chun-ming, president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists, believed donating or dumping unused stock was unlikely to hurt Hong Kong’s chances of securing the next round of vaccines, as manufacturers would give priority to places that had put in orders first.
He pointed to the European Union, which was allocated few supplies by British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, due to its late order and the firm’s capacity bottleneck.
Chui said donating doses could affect Hong Kong getting its share through the WHO-led Covax vaccine allocation system, but added the city was always going to be at the back of the queue due to the global health agency’s equitable distribution principle, which ensured countries which failed to secure jabs would get priority in the programme.
The veteran pharmacist also told the Post on Tuesday he believed the city should sell rather than donate its unused jabs, to get cash back for the next round of vaccines.
Medical Association president Dr Gabriel Choi Kin hit out at the government’s comments on Wednesday, saying they were “a bit threatening”.
“The government wanted to push the public to be vaccinated, but people don’t trust the authorities,” he said.
Although the government had initially aimed to get around 70 per cent of the population vaccinated to reach the herd immunity threshold, Choi believed it would be hard to achieve. Perhaps reaching 40 per cent would be sufficient, he said, although that also remained difficult to attain.
The Hong Kong Academy of Medicine also joined the calls urging people to get inoculated to help the city return to normality. It said a higher vaccination uptake rate among healthy adults would be helpful in protecting children who could not get shots.
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, chair of the Medical Association’s communicable diseases committee, urged the government to quickly broaden the age threshold for vaccines to students, as they needed to attend classes.
“For example, Canada and Singapore have already authorised BioNTech vaccines for [the 12-15 age group], following studies supporting that they can receive the vaccines. But at this moment we haven’t approved it,” he told a radio programme.
Tsang said it was disappointing as it remained unclear how long it would take officials to approve such use in Hong Kong.
Additional reporting by Rachel Yeo
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