Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 24 March 2021


Hong Kong Offers a Master Class in Vaccine Confusion

The territory has temporarily halted BioNTech Covid-19 vaccinations. Coming after doctors were accused of smearing China’s Sinovac alternative, it’s awkward timing.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s inoculation campaign has had its stops and starts.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s inoculation campaign has had its stops and starts. Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images AsiaPac

Hong Kong’s hesitant vaccination drive was dealt a fresh blow on Wednesday when officials temporarily halted BioNTech SE Covid vaccinations. A fumbled communication effort, after months of mixing politics and public health, threatens to further undermine trust.

Much like Europe, grappling with the impact of AstraZeneca Plc vaccine suspensions, Hong Kong faces the prospect of having to overcome a sudden stoppage — this time triggered by stained vials and loose caps affecting what is now its most popular shot. An investigation will have to uncover the cause of the packaging trouble, and consequences, if any, for those already injected. BioNTech and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co., which has the rights to market the vaccine in Greater China, say there is no reason to believe the product is unsafe. Officials say spoiled vials were jettisoned, and the pause is a precaution. 

The trouble is that prudence has side effects in territories with pre-existing conditions. So too does poor messaging that left those arriving for vaccine appointments, and staff meeting them, in the dark. Neighboring Macau, similarly affected, ended up issuing a statement first.

Hong Kong was always going to struggle to run a mass vaccination campaign, given deep distrust of government, one of its least-popular leaders, and an enforced political transformation as Beijing tightens its grip and removes the last vestiges of democracy. Surveys showed that well before Wednesday, Hong Kongers planned to hold off. A lack of urgency — because cases have remained low — hasn’t helped. Nor have a handful of deaths among those who took the Chinese-made alternative offered in the city, Sinovac Biotech Ltd., though no causal link has been established. Those shots have not been stopped.

Faced with this hesitancy, instead of tackling specific concerns and questions — let alone even seeking to understand the public’s vaccine anxiety — leader Carrie Lam has been admonishing her citizens: “If we require people to go for compulsory testing, they won’t do it, and now we encourage people to take the vaccines, people don’t do that,” she said last week. Blaming others is rarely a good tactic.

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That was the backdrop against which news of BioNTech’s suspension trickled through. 

With so little political capital and public confidence to spare, the government should have swiftly confronted the problem. Hong Kong’s centers on Wednesday morning had hastily printed paper closure signs, confusion, and some took early appointments anyway. An otherwise impressive logistical operation stumbled at a key moment. Cancellation text messages were not sent out to those who had booked until late morning, by which stage alarm and conspiracies had spread like wildfire. 

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