Shortage of HPV anti-cancer drug Gardasil in Hong Kong prompts protest outside Merck offices in Causeway Bay
Group of women call on US company to increase supply of cancer drug but firm says local clinics have been treating too many patients
After months of unhappiness over a shortage of the HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 in Hong Kong, a group of women took their protests to the offices of the drug’s maker in Causeway Bay on Friday.
Wearing face masks and carrying two large banners, about 20 protesters, most of whom were from the mainland, arrived at the office of US drug company Merck, which is known as MSD outside America, to urge the firm to increase its supply of the human papillomavirus vaccine.
However, MSD said it had warned the city’s clinics about eight months ago that there was a supply issue, after a disruption in the production line. Gardasil 9 treatment can prevent cervical and other cancers.
The makers said that despite a course of treatment requiring three injections, some clinics had not been stockpiling the drug, instead taking on extra patients and giving more women just one or two jabs.
“We have been urging local doctors to reserve enough shots for existing patients to finish their courses,” a spokeswoman said. “But we cannot control the business decision of the private clinics.”
The shortage in Hong Kong has been exacerbated by a large influx of women from mainland China seeking a drug that has been available in the city since 2016, but was only approved by national regulators in April.
The MSD spokeswoman said the company had not stopped supplying the vaccine to Hong Kong, but the demand for it had been greater than anticipated.
The shortage is believed to be most severe among a few major medical chains in the city. Small private clinics had typically saved enough doses for existing patients, and refrained from taking on new ones.
Most of the women who took part in the protest complained they were only informed about the shortage by clinics after their initial injection.
A woman from Yunnan province, surnamed Li, said she had paid HK$6,000 (US$760) for three doses at a clinic in Tsim Sha Tsui. She had expected to be given a second injection in May this year, after receiving her first in September.
She said she took a flight to Hong Kong to receive the vaccine, as she believed it was safe to be treated in the city.
However, she was informed there was no supply of the drug when she began making calls in April to make an appointment to have her second injection. The clinic told her it was not clear when the vaccines would be made available.
Another protester, who was only identified as Luo, said she hoped to receive the second injection as soon as possible.
“I’m worried that only having received the first dose, with the dragging of time, the effect would be gone,” said Luo, who is from Fujian province.
Gardasil 9 was first made available in Hainan province late last month, and mainland demand has been strong.
Still, it is common to see internet chat rooms on mainland social media showing people how to get across the border to get the drug in Hong Kong.
Last month, the Post reported that hundreds of mainland women had threatened legal action against a Hong Kong clinic in Mong Kok, because they had only obtained one or two injections after paying about HK$6,500 (US$830) for treatment.
In April, the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong posted a notice saying it would stop providing HPV vaccines to non-Hong Kong residents because of limited resources. The Department of Health said it had received several queries from the public about the shortage of the vaccine.
The Consumer Council received 444 complaints about vaccine delays last year and most involved HPV jabs. As of June 8 this year, it had received 1,449 similar complaints about delays to vaccine supplies.
Friday’s protest was organised by a company named CKL Consulting Limited, which claimed it was serving as a platform to help affected women reflect their concerns on the issue.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said MSD had made known the local supply for Gardasil 9 would be tight this year because of the increase in global demand, and the company had issued letters to affected clients in mid-April and mid-May to explain the supply situation.
The department also said MSD was “actively importing” the vaccine into Hong Kong, but the quantity was expected to fall short of the demand of the local private health care market.
“The department will continue to request that MSD increases the import quantity of the vaccine to meet the needs of the local private health care market,” the spokesman said.