Hong Kong residents urged to get a Covid-19 jab soon before the available vaccines expire

A Hong Kong official said that although doses have been secured for all 7.5 million residents, only around 20 per cent has been vaccinated. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Cities in the region may be off to a slow start in their inoculation drive due to the lack of supplies of Covid-19 vaccines, but in Hong Kong it is the reverse - there are ample supplies but not many willing takers.

Hong Kongers "only have a three-month window" before the city's first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines go out of date, a member of the government's vaccine task force warned on Tuesday (May 25).

Urging the territory's residents to book an appointment now, Mr Thomas Tsang warned that Hong Kong may not be able to get its hands on more doses for the rest of the year.

Mr Tsang, a former controller of the Centre for Health Protection, drove home the point while speaking on public broadcaster RTHK's Hong Kong Today programme.

He noted that Hong Kong has been fortunate to be able to secure vaccines for the entire 7.5 million population but the take-up rate was only around 20 per cent.

The "unsatisfactory" take-up rate of both the Chinese Sinovac and German-made Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines has left officials, who are counting on vaccination to reopen the economy, with a headache.

Currently, the free and voluntary vaccination programme that started in late February is open to those aged 16 and above, and more than 2.2 million doses of vaccines have been given.

Of these, about 1.3 million individuals have received the first dose, with 55 per cent choosing the BioNTech shots.

Sinovac has yet to be approved by the World Health Organisation but was fast-tracked for use by city health regulators.

Mr Tsang attributed the low inoculation rate to a false perception that the jabs available are not safe.

Discouraging a wait-and-see approach, he said: "The whole world is scrambling for vaccines... What we have is probably all we have for the rest of the year."

Experts have said vaccine hesitancy in the community is likely to stay, especially as the city's pandemic situation comes under control.

They noted that news reports of the adverse reactions to the vaccine have planted misgivings about vaccine safety that are now hard to change. This is perpetuated by a lack of trust in the government.

As at May 16, reports of adverse events including migraine, chest pain and facial paralysis were reported in 0.15 per cent or about 2,890 cases of the 2 million doses of vaccines administered.

There were reports of 20 deaths within 14 days of vaccination - that is 0.001 per cent fatalities for all doses given.

The Expert Committee tasked to look into the events concluded that five cases had no causal relationship with the vaccination and preliminarily considered that 15 cases were not associated with vaccination.

Hong Kong currently appears to have brought its fourth wave of the pandemic under control.

The city has recorded more than 11,800 confirmed infections and 210 deaths, with local cases down to between one and three in the past 28 days.

Officials have in recent weeks been encouraging locals to get their shots, stressing that the community vaccination centres for BioNTech will cease operations after September, when the jabs expire.

"So we only have maybe a three-month window to get vaccinated if you are considering BioNTech. After that it may be much more difficult," Mr Tsang said.

Hong Kong secured 7.5 million doses each of Sinovac and Pfizer-BioNTech jabs.

A further order from AstraZeneca was cancelled due to safety concerns, but officials said they are looking at ordering a future second-generation vaccine.

Speaking ahead of the weekly executive council meeting, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday said the government hopes employers in the private sector can provide incentives to encourage staff to get vaccinated.

Likewise, the government will incentivise people through policies, such as relaxing social distancing rules in step with the vaccination rate.

The government is also hoping to ease the aggressive testing of staff from various sectors, including healthcare and the civil service, as the vaccination rate goes up.

"At the moment, they are required to undergo testing every 14 days, but they may be exempted if they have been fully inoculated," Mrs Lam said, adding that the government is also considering giving civil servants who have taken their jabs days off.

But the government will not turn to giving out financial incentives as it may create an undesirable effect, she said.

Separately, the government on Tuesday announced that the vaccination programme will be extended from Friday (May 28) to include a specific group of mainland residents.

These residents are holders of the Exit-entry Permit for Travelling (EEP) to and from Hong Kong and Macau, whose stays in Hong Kong have been extended due to the pandemic.

There are currently over 40,000 mainland residents holding the EEP who are allowed to stay in Hong Kong as a visitor.

The government is also preparing for vaccination of about 13,000 non-refoulement claimants and refugees recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong.

In a statement, it said it is looking into the matter and has plans to provide vaccination to the claimants and refugees from July.

The government is also trying to get companies from sectors such as construction, consulting and public utilities to arrange outreach vaccination for their employees.
It offered last week to arrange on-site vaccinations for private sector employees.

Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific has said it might make vaccination a prerequisite for staff.

More than a week ago, Executive Council member and lawmaker Regina Ip criticised Health Secretary Sophia Chan for not donating the unused vaccines to other places such as India.

Prof Chan had said the government would liaise with the World Health Organisation to see whether there's a donation mechanism in place.

Her reply prompted Mrs Ip to retort: "You don't have to follow the WHO on everything. Use your common sense."

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