Hong Kong kicks off expanded Covid-19 vaccine drive as hesitation lingers

Only 5.4 per cent of Hong Kong people in priority groups have come forward for shots since inoculation started on Feb 26.
Only 5.4 per cent of Hong Kong people in priority groups have come forward for shots since inoculation started on Feb 26.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Covid-19 vaccination appointments appear to be getting snapped up quickly in Hong Kong, especially in parts of the city impacted by the recent gym outbreak, after the government expanded access to shots in a bid to boost the lacklustre inoculation roll-out.

Spots for shots at community vaccination centres on Hong Kong Island, home to the city's central business district and most of its expatriate population, filled up quickly on Tuesday (March 16), the first day that eligibility expanded to adults aged 30 to 59, covering 70 per cent of the population.

The newly added group can book slots starting from Friday.

But in a sign that many local residents remained sceptical of inoculation, vaccination centres in Kowloon and the New Territories had more vacancies.

While Hong Kong's healthy adult population is one of the first in the world to gain entry to the Covid-19 vaccine drive, the expanded access reflects a major vaccine hesitation problem that will likely delay the city's ability to reopen to mainland China and the rest of the world.

Officials widened eligibility earlier than expected because uptake has been 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 have meant that people feel less urgency and more scepticism towards rapidly developed shots.

Only 5.4 per cent - some 200,000 - of Hong Kong people in priority groups including the elderly and healthcare workers have come forward for shots since inoculation started on Feb 26.

It is unclear whether the younger adult population can help boost these underwhelming numbers. An informal poll of 13 people in the 30- to 59-year-old group on Tuesday showed half planning to get a vaccine now that they can.

Mr 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 on Tuesday morning and will receive his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot on Saturday in Causeway Bay.

"The first thing I would like to do is to travel internationally," Mr Lin said, adding that this includes going to the United States 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 was 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'

The expanded vaccine drive comes as the city grapples with a new outbreak of the virus centred on its expatriate community, including employees of international financial firms. Hong Kong will also require all staff from the local US consulate to undergo testing for the virus, after two workers became infected. 

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. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam received Chinese maker Sinovac Biotech's shot on Feb 22 along with other Cabinet members.

"The absence of trust only complicates the vaccine roll-out," said Associate Professor Nicholas Thomas, a health security expert 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 have received a Chinese vaccine, something that reassures Mr 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 quarantine and I hope it will be easier to travel with Chinese vaccines. My hope is to resume business as normal."

Hong Kong has some of the strictest quarantine rules in the world, with travellers required to do 21 days of isolation in designated hotels. Locally, those who are close contacts of infected people must quarantine in spartan government facilities, even if they have tested negative.

People coming forward for vaccination are hoping that these rules will ease with proof of inoculation.

Mr James Tu, chief investment officer of Hong Kong-based hedge fund firm Long Corridor Asset Management, asked his assistant to book him a slot for the BioNTech vaccine in the first hour appointments opened to the wider group on Tuesday.

"The incentive is to be able to visit my mum in China sooner, hopefully, and doing our bit to exit this Covid epoch as soon as possible," said Mr Tu, who last saw his mother more than a year ago. "Nobody wants even two days" of quarantine, he said.