Hong Kong Covid-19 vaccine bookings jump in first day of expanded access

In a photo taken on Feb 26, 2021, people queue outside a sports centre to receive a vaccine in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong saw more than 144,000 people snap up Covid-19 vaccine appointments the first day the government expanded access to a majority of residents, a sharp increase amid its bid to boost a lacklustre inoculation roll-out.

Some 30,800 people reserved slots to get the Chinese-made Sinovac Biotech shot and 113,200 others booked doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine at community vaccine centres in the 24 hours ending at 8pm Tuesday (March 16), the government said. Data was not available from private clinics, some of which are also offering Sinovac's shot.

Before the expansion, only some 200,000 people - comprising just 5.4 per cent of priority groups eligible like the elderly and healthcare workers - had come forward for shots since the vaccine drive started on Feb 26.

The total number of people able to access vaccines now represents some 70 per cent of the city's population of 7.5 million, with adults aged 30 to 59 years old now eligible. The government added 23,000 new reservation slots to daily capacity on Tuesday, and has increased the number of community centres offering the BioNTech shot from seven to 19.

The extended drive comes as the city grapples with a new outbreak of the virus centred on its expatriate community, including employees of international financial firms. HSBC Holdings' main Hong Kong office was ordered to close until further notice after three people working in the building tested positive for Covid-19.

Countering reluctance

While Hong Kong's healthy adult population is one of the first in the world to gain eligibility for inoculation, the expanded access reflects a major vaccine hesitation problem that will likely delay the city's ability to reopen to the world.

Officials widened eligibility earlier than expected after uptake was dismal among priority groups, leaving millions of doses unused.

Demand for Covid-19 vaccines has generally been lower in Asia, where contained outbreaks and low death tolls in places like Japan and Singapore has meant that people feel less urgency and more scepticism towards rapidly-developed shots.

It's unclear if the younger adult population will ultimately help boost these underwhelming numbers, after the initial burst of pent-up demand. An informal poll of 13 people in the 30 to 59 years old group on Tuesday showed that half were planning to get a vaccine now that they can.

George Lin, chief financial officer at Hua Medicine and a former banker at Bank of America, said he was so excited to book a slot that he had a sleepless night. He signed up early Tuesday morning and will receive his first dose of BioNTech's shot on Saturday in Causeway Bay.

"The first thing I would like to do is to travel internationally," Lin said, including to the US to see his two daughters. "If I were in the US, I would not get this until May."

Others said they did not want to take the risk. Resistance among Hong Kong residents has grown after reports of several deaths among inoculated people, though experts said none of them are directly tied to the vaccine.

"I don't trust the vaccines, there's not enough data to show it is safe, there's not been enough testing," said hairstylist Kei Ma, 41.

"I don't know how many other things the government is hiding."

'Absence of trust'

Political turmoil and China's tightening grip over the former British colony are complicating factors as city officials try to persuade people to take the vaccine. Lam received Sinovac's shot on Feb 22 along with other Cabinet members.

"The absence of trust only complicates the vaccine roll-out," said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor in health security at City University of Hong Kong. "Short of mandatory vaccinations, which would likely be resisted by the population, the Hong Kong government is facing a slower path to reopening than its earlier successes against the virus suggested would be the case."

China is planning to ease requirements for foreigners applying for mainland visas from Hong Kong if they've received a Chinese vaccine, something that reassures David Bonnet, managing partner at real estate and hospitality advisory firm Delta State Holdings who signed up for a Sinovac shot.

"If you live in Hong Kong and Macau, getting one of the Chinese vaccines probably will give some tangible benefits," he said. "I don't want to be subject to quarantines and I hope it will be easier to travel with Chinese vaccines. My hope is to resume business as normal."

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