Hong Kong prepares to vaccinate 36,000 people daily

Hong Kong will set up 18 community vaccination centres - one in every district.
Hong Kong will set up 18 community vaccination centres - one in every district.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong will set up 18 community vaccination centres - one in every district - to each handle at least 2,000 residents a day as the city prepares to administer the Covid-19 shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech as early as the end of February.

These centres will handle only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, while the other two shots the city has ordered - from Sinovac Biotech and AstraZeneca - will be distributed to private hospitals and clinics, according to Dr Thomas Tsang, a member of Hong Kong's vaccination programme task force.

The separate distribution is to avoid mixing up the vaccines, as the Pfizer-BioNTech shot needs to be handled at colder temperatures than the others.

Hong Kong will allow people to choose their vaccine, though Sinovac and AstraZeneca's shots will not be available immediately since they have not cleared the city's regulatory process.

The details come as Hong Kong adopts a very careful inoculation approach, opting for a smooth roll-out rather than a speedy one to avoid any problems with supplies or possible surge in hospitalisation.

"Our priority really is to have an organised programme," Dr Tsang said in an interview on Tuesday (Jan 26). "We try to do it as smoothly as possible, because that's important to build public confidence. We surely don't want something unexpected or some logistic hiccups."

Unlike some pandemic hot spots such as London and New York, where governments are racing to inoculate their populations as quickly as possible to bring surging cases under control, Hong Kong can afford a more cautious pace. Its Covid-19 infections have not risen as drastically, with strict social distancing rules keeping local cases to a few dozen daily.

Hong Kong will not start vaccinating its citizens until the end of February at the earliest. In an effort to prevent overburdening the city's hospitals, Hong Kong may not vaccinate all elderly citizens and nursing homes at once, instead approaching such high-risk residents in stages.

"Once they've got fever, a lot of times they have to be admitted to hospital for observation," said Dr Tsang, former head of the Centre for Health Protection who got the nickname "super detective" after leading a team to track the source of the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in the early 2000s.

"We don't want suddenly a surge of elderly home residents going to hospital," he said.

Officials also will not follow the lead taken by Britain, which drained its entire initial vaccine supply on first doses, and then had to wait for more batches to give out second doses, Dr Tsang said.

A lack of supplies has emerged as one of the biggest glitches for governments trying to inoculate their citizens.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday said she has asked China to supply more inoculations because of a hiccup with the city's other vaccine orders. An earlier report said Mrs Lam was seeking shots developed by Sinopharm, which currently does not have a vaccine contract with Hong Kong.

The city has purchased enough doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines to cover its 7.5 million residents, and is looking for a fourth pact to boost coverage to twice its population.

Dr Tsang said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which this week became the first to be approved by Hong Kong, will arrive in batches of one million to 1.5 million doses every month, though the first batch will not arrive until the end of February.

Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, which is marketing the vaccine in the Greater China region, said on Tuesday that the vaccines will be shipped directly from Germany and stored in low-temperature warehouses before being delivered to inoculation sites.

The companies producing the other two vaccines have not submitted all the required data for starting the approval process, Dr Tsang said.

"We expect Sinovac to submit the complete clinical trial data with all the details included," said Dr Tsang. "Right now, we only have bits of pieces from officials in different places, but these are not up to our scientific standard. That's a crucial bit of information that is missing - and the same for AstraZeneca."

The government has not set a timeline for the roll-out, Dr Tsang said. But he hopes high-risk groups such as the elderly and healthcare workers can be vaccinated within half a year or less.

"We need to roll it out first and see what happens before we come up with some concrete idea of what target are we going to make," he said. "Definitely, we're in for a wild ride."