Hong Kong leaders, including expats, choose to take China’s Sinovac vaccine over the more effective BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine in hopes it will speed up visa and re-entry procedures for mainland China, local officials say of health.
The move follows an extraordinary offer from Beijing to provide “visa facilitation” for foreign visitors who choose to be vaccinated with a vaccine made in China rather than overseas. The proposal underscored the fears of vaccine nationalism during the pandemic.
The Hong Kong government has offered residents a choice between the BioNTech jab, which has an efficiency rate of 95%, and the CoronaVac projectile manufactured by Sinovac, whose the efficiency rate is only 50%.
An executive of an American company based in Hong Kong said he chose the Sinovac jab “only” for business reasons. “I think it will allow me to get better treatment to get a visa,” he said.
“[My expat friends] everyone thinks that it makes no sense to acquire Sinovac when BioNTech has a much higher efficiency rate, ”he added. “But I have to start traveling.”
Although Hong Kong is part of China, a border with passport controls is maintained between them as part of the autonomy granted to the territory when it was transferred from the United Kingdom in 1997.
The wider Hong Kong community has shown a reluctant attitude towards the government’s immunization program, in part because of the underlying mistrust of the government among many as well as concerns about the safety of the shots.
But some business leaders have been more willing to consider the Sinovac vaccine if it accelerates access to the continent. During the pandemic, China has imposed strict travel restrictions on those who wish to enter Hong Kong, with some exemptions.
“Visa facilitation only applies to applicants who have been vaccinated with Covid-19 vaccines produced in China,” the Chinese government said last month, without providing further details on the vaccines.
Yet some feared that European and Western governments would accept Vaccines made in China to travel without quarantine.
Iceland, one of the first countries to offer travel without quarantine visitors vaccinated, will only recognize vaccines authorized by the European Medicines Agency or the World Health Organization. No Chinese-made snapshot makes the list of the two.
Yeung Chiu-fat, a general practitioner and former chairman of the Hong Kong Physicians’ Union, said he has vaccinated more than 200 people with the Sinovac vaccine since the program began in late February.
About 30% had taken the vaccine to help them return to mainland China. “They were pretty excited,” he said.
Another Hong Kong executive said returning to China was “essential” for his work, so he had to choose jab Sinovac.
William Chui, president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists, said some patients joked about taking a “mix and match” approach so that they could travel to China and elsewhere getting their first shot as Sinovac and the second under the name of BioNTech. “But as a pharmacist, I don’t recommend it,” he said.
Many international executives are based in Hong Kong, but the bulk of their business is on the mainland.
Hong Kong’s business chambers have warned that mainland travel restrictions are undermine the attractiveness of the city as a base for corporate operations in China, with some considering moving some functions to Shanghai or elsewhere.
Besides the low efficiency rate of his jab, Sinovac also facing accusations for not being sufficiently transparent in the publication of data from the phase 3 trials. The Hong Kong government expert panel said the vaccine’s efficacy rate reached 62.3% if the second dose of vaccine came after a 28 day hiatus.
Singapore health officials said Sinovac had not provided sufficient information for them to assess the jab and had requested more data.
Sinovac did not immediately respond to a request for comment.