The launch of Hong Kong’s Covid-19 vaccination programme at the end of February was perhaps the best piece of news for a very long time. The immunization of the majority of citizens will be key to revitalizing our battered economy and enabling us to begin to return to normal.
“The vaccination programme is a vital step in lifting domestic restrictions and helping us to reconnect to the international economy as it starts to recover,” said the Chamber’s Chairman Peter Wong. “Vaccines are the crucial stage in enabling the return of regular business operations, as well as the resumption of cross-border travel.”
The vaccine roll-out got off to a good start on 23 February, with quotas for the first two weeks snapped up on the first day that booking was available. This participation bodes well, as vaccination of the majority of a population is crucial, as only after the point of herd immunity is reached can transmission be halted.
Speaking at a Chamber webinar ahead of the launch of the Hong Kong vaccination programme, Dr Leung Pak-yin emphasised the importance of wide take-up.
“As more and more people get vaccinated, the Covid-19 transmission rate will drop,” he explained. “Only then we will be able to relax the social-distancing measures.”
The Government has secured enough vaccines for all Hong Kong residents, and hopes to have vaccinated the majority of the population within 2021. This is in line with, and even ahead of, many other developed economies.
Leung, who has many years of experience in public health, including a decade as Chief Executive of Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority, urged patience, as not everyone will be able to get vaccinated straight away.
“As there are limited supplies of vaccines at this early stage, we need to give priority to different target groups for vaccination,” he said.
The huge global demand for vaccines means it will take time for everyone to receive their shots. However, Hong Kong’s highly effective healthcare structure means that the roll-out should be efficient. It is also a civic responsibility for people in Hong Kong to get vaccinated. Only once the whole society has been immunized can we be sure that the virus will stop spreading.
Jeffrey Lam, the Chamber’s LegCo Representative, shared his thoughts on the benefits of the vaccination programme for the whole Hong Kong community.
“I think it is so important to have the vaccination,” he said. “Not only are you protecting yourself from catching Covid-19, but also your family, your community and everyone you come into contact with.”
As widespread take-up of vaccination is so important for business recovery, as well as the health of our citizens, the Chamber strongly supports the programme and we hope all our members will do the same.
“We encourage our members to assist their employees to find the time to be vaccinated as soon as their vaccine of choice becomes available,” said the Chamber’s Chairman Wong. “The sooner people get vaccinated, the sooner life will be able to return to normal.”
Safe and effective
As of 26 February, more than 225 million vaccine doses had been administered worldwide in more than 100 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. This includes 68 million in the United States, 40 million in Mainland China, and 30 million in the European Union.
Hong Kong has not rolled out the vaccine as quickly as some other places, such as Britain, which had given first doses to 28% of the population by 26 February. However, this short delay means that we have been able to see that there have been no major issues with any of the vaccines in use – including the three that will be used in Hong Kong. While all vaccines are subject to extremely stringent checks, it is still reassuring for citizens to know that they have already been administered safely to millions of people.
And we can see how the vaccines have already had a positive impact. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospital admissions in February fell 72% compared to January. A similar situation is being seen in Britain, where early data also suggests that transmission rates fall by around two-thirds after the first shot.
For Hong Kong, the example of Israel is particularly interesting. Israel has a population of 9 million, and, is also highly developed and urbanized with excellent healthcare. By mid-February, around half of the population had received their first dose, which enabled the country to start reopening through its digital Green Pass scheme.
“The vaccinated and recovered will be able to enter gyms, events, hotels and synagogues that are registered under the Green Pass certificate,” said Israel Health Minister Yuri Edelstein, introducing the scheme on 16 February. “This is how the first stage will look in the return to your almost normal lives.”
Besides allowing businesses to operate, the Green Pass also provides reassurance that fellow diners, for example, have also been vaccinated, making people feel safer and more likely to go out and socialize.
Return to the skies?
Despite the success of Israel’s digital pass, it seems that a global “vaccine passport” is not immediately on the cards. The reopening of our border with the Mainland and a return to global travel will be crucial steps in Hong Kong’s overall recovery. Bilateral agreements will probably be the first steps in the resumption of travel.
In his Budget Speech last month, Financial Secretary Paul Chan said: “The Government will discuss arrangements regarding Air Travel Bubbles with places that have close economic and trade relations with Hong Kong, and where the epidemic situation is relatively stable.”
As the mechanism for a Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble is already in place, and both cities have very low case numbers, this may be the first to launch.
An Australia-New Zealand travel bubble may also pave the way for wider opening. Australia already allows New Zealand citizens to enter the country without quarantine, and Australian politician and business leaders are hopeful that this will become a reciprocal arrangement.
Speaking on 25 February, Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said that the airline plans to increase flights to New Zealand in July, followed by the rest of the world in the autumn.
“We’re now planning for international travel to restart at the end of October this year, in line with the date for Australia’s vaccine rollout to be effectively complete,” Joyce said.
Words of caution
While the vaccines have proved to be highly effective, large populations cannot be vaccinated overnight, and demand still outstrips supply. Although the United States leads the way in the number of vaccines given to date, this represents only 14% of its total population.
Developing countries face further constraints. Most low-income countries will depend on the World Health Organization’s COVAX programme, but, as a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit notes, production may be delayed.
“Given that unexpected hiccups in procuring supplies have already occurred in most developed countries, it is likely that developing countries with poor infrastructure, few healthcare workers and inadequate refrigeration will find the roll-out even harder,” the report said.
“This means that for many poor nations, the roll-out of vaccines will not get underway until early 2023, if it happens at all.” These countries include our regional neighbours Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia.
A report from HSBC in February also noted that several ASEAN countries were struggling to contain their winter surge.
“Malaysia and Indonesia are still seeing record high daily infection rates,” the HSBC report said. “In addition, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are also seeing an increase in the number of new infections after a period of stabilisation.”
So there are still many reasons to be cautious about the prospects for a return to global growth. But with Hong Kong’s vaccination programme now in full swing, we can perhaps anticipate an Israeli-style reopening of our local economy to start with. It will be a long road back to normal, but after an exceptionally difficult year, we can at least be optimistic that we are finally on the path to recovery.
Hong Kong's Vaccine Programme
Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai from the Government's Task Force on Covid-19 Vaccination Programme discussed the details of the vaccine programme at a Chamber webinar ahead of the rollout. Tsang, who played a key role in the fight against SARS, said that the vaccines would be available to all citizens free of charge.
Hong Kong has ordered three different vaccines, from BioNTech, Sinovac and Oxford-AstraZeneca. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to arrive in Hong Kong later this year, while the others are already in use.
"The BioNTech vaccine has already been used in countries including the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, and has an efficacy rate of 95%, according to Phase 3 studies," Tsang explained.
While the BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at -70 °C, the Sinovac and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines do not need such careful handling and can therefore be made available at private clinics.
"Sinovac is an inactivated vaccine which works by using killed viral particles to expose the body's immune system," Tsang explained. "Many other vaccines, for example Hepatitis A and Pertussis (whooping cough), also use the same technique."
The Sinovac vaccine is already in use in other countries, which have all reported its efficacy rate as being more than 50%, the minimum rate for World Health Organisation approval.
Pregnant women and those who have had allergic reactions to vaccination in the past should not have the BioNTech vaccine, and cancer patients should consult their doctor first, Tsang said. Otherwise, all three vaccines are safe for the majority of people, including those with chronic illnesses.
"For people with long-term illnesses – for example high blood pressure, diabetes, and illnesses involving the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys – they should still get the vaccination," he said.
Types of Vaccines
The Government plans to provide the public with the following Covid-19 vaccines:
1. Inactivated virus technology platform - by Sinovac Biotech (Hong Kong) Limited
2. mRNA technology platform - by Fosun Pharma in collaboration with the German drug manufacturer BioNTech (BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine)
3. Non-replicating viral vector technology platform - by AstraZeneca, in collaboration with the University of Oxford.
The Government will continue sourcing safe and effective vaccines from other vaccine manufacturers or drug companies.
Community Vaccination Centres (CVC)
The Government will set up CVCs in each of the 18 districts in Hong Kong. Only one type of vaccine will be administered in a CVC. (Booking required)
Eligible members of the public can select the vaccine, and book through the 24-hour online booking system. A maximum of two carers who accompany elderly people aged 70 or above can also receive vaccination at the same time.
The CVCs will start operation in phases, depending on the arrival of the vaccines in Hong Kong, the quantity of vaccines and the situation of vaccination.
Opening Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Monday to Sunday)
Documents to bring:
1. identity document
2. proof for priority group (eg staff card, warrant card, licence, employer’s letter)
3. SMS message or photocopy of booking confirmation
First: Residents and staff of residential care homes for the elderly/persons with disabilities and other institutional facilities
Second: Workers in healthcare settings, workers in other essential services who are at increased risk of exposure to Covid-19, and persons aged 60 years or above
Third: Persons with chronic medical problems aged between 16 and 59 years.
The Government has started to notify people identified as priority groups about their eligibility for priority vaccination.
Details of Hong Kong's vaccination programme and booking can be found online at: