Chinese agent orchestrating HPV vaccine protest against US medical firm Merck in Hong Kong is profiting from offering the jab
CKL Consulting organised demonstration against US drug giant over shortage of cervical cancer vaccination Gardasil 9, but firm is linked to group under fire for failing to honour treatment deals while taking orders from new customers
A mainland Chinese agent profiting from offering cervical cancer vaccinations is behind a recent high-profile effort urging a greater supply of an HPV vaccine in Hong Kong, a Post investigation has found.
A protest on June 8 outside the Causeway Bay office of US pharmaceutical firm Merck – known as MSD outside America – called for the drug maker to boost its supply of a vaccine named Gardasil 9, which offers the fullest protection on the market and is unavailable across the country except in Hainan province.
The protest organiser, CKL Consulting Limited, claimed it represented some 500 women, mostly mainlanders, who had paid for human papilloma virus vaccination packages in the city’s private clinics but failed to receive all the jabs in time.
However, the Post’s investigation found CKL to be a company held by a mainland agent who makes money referring customers to a Hong Kong medical group. The group is now a major target of complaint for failing to honour its agreement to offer the whole treatment to existing customers while taking orders from new ones.
Medical sector lawmaker Pierre Chan, who received hundreds of complaints about HPV vaccines, said the real issue was not about a shortage.
“It is an improper trade practice,” Chan said. “[Those companies] received [customers’] money and made a service pledge, but failed to provide those goods or services.”
According to MSD, Hong Kong clinics were informed as long as eight months ago that its production line had been disrupted due to a cyberattack, and were warned in recent weeks that supply would be affected “throughout the coming year”.
On Sunday an MSD spokeswoman called on health care practitioners in Hong Kong to reserve second and third doses for existing customers.
“We believe it requires a joint effort to ease the situation,” she said.
The recent protest is only part of a larger cross-border dispute roiling the city over the past few months and involving a business worth billions of Hong Kong dollars. The price for a vaccination package in Hong Kong has been rising since last year. Some clinics sell it for between HK$8,000 (US$1,020) and HK$15,000 – at least three to five times what local residents pay.
On the Chinese social networking service Weibo, mainland consumers blamed Hong Kong clinics for the vaccination delay, with many using the hashtag “Who moved my vaccines?” A topic page relating to the hashtag has attracted more than 8.8 million page views since its debut last month, when some private clinics in the city abruptly cancelled bookings, citing a shortage.
They are appealing for the vaccinations to be provided in time because many already paid for a course of three shots of Gardasil 9, which should be administered within a year at three specific intervals.
The issue gained public attention in Hong Kong when about 10 mainland women stormed into a clinic in Tsim Sha Tsui on June 6 and argued vehemently with clinic staff about the vaccination delay.
Two days later, a newly founded consulting company mobilised more than 20 mainland women for the protest in Causeway Bay targeting MSD.
MSD is the world’s sole supplier of Gardasil 9.
Protesters held banners bearing slogans such as: “MSD, don’t cheat Chinese any more”, and “The supply was cut after the first shot!”
“My two daughters are waiting for the HPV vaccination,” CKL consultant Sam Ng Chit-kit said during the protest.
But when pressed to explain whether the event’s organiser was involved in the vaccine business, Ng replied: “More than 20 volunteers set up this platform. We don’t have any interest.”
Business registry documents showed CKL was set up last month by Guangxi native He Yingmo, 33, who is listed as the company’s sole director and shareholder.
CKL claims on its website to provide legal or consulting help to resolve cross-border disputes, and its only original news post details its first organised protest outside the Merck office on May 29.
But the Post separately found a company news item describing a person, also named He Yingmo, as the operating manager of an HPV vaccination agency named Gangan Medical Consultant (Shenzhen) Limited.
According to Gangan’s website, it charged mainlanders about 400 to 600 yuan (US$93) to arrange HPV vaccinations at Modern Medical Holdings Limited, a private medical group in Hong Kong. One of its clinics located at a popular medical services centre in Tsim Sha Tsui had its operation interrupted early this month by a group of mainland customers whose vaccination was delayed.
Information reviewed by the Post shows He Yingmo from the agency shares the same name, date of birth and hometown as the other He behind the consultancy.
When first contacted by the Post, He confirmed he was working for Gangan. And he denied any involvement in any protests relating to HPV vaccinations.
However, when contacted on the same day at the consultancy number, He denied he was still working for Gangan and said he left the agency last year.
Asked why he founded CKL, He said: “My lawyer friend wanted to set up a law firm ... But I don’t know why my name was on it [the company registry].”
A number of online complaint groups in China comprising mainland consumers whose HPV vaccination in Hong Kong was affected have kept their distance from CKL. A joint statement issued by 10 such groups after the June 8 protest clarified that CKL did not represent them. They said CKL had deliberately directed media attention to the drug maker while ignoring breached agreements by clinics and agents. It added that CKL had not taken any legal action for affected consumers as it had claimed at the outset.
A woman identifying herself only as Kiran from Guangzhou province said an online survey of the groups that issued the joint statement showed at least 1,000 consumers had been affected. Of the total, 650 acquired service from Modern Medical, as did she for her first and only shot.
Modern Medical has yet to respond to the Post’s inquiries.
Solicitor Daniel Wong Kwok-tung said it was dishonest for CKL not to disclose its ownership before organising the protest, and the purpose could have been to divert the focus of complaints.
He said it would be a breach of contract if consumers failed to get their vaccinations in time, unless an exemption clause had been stipulated.
Consumers could demand a full refund, as the treatment would not be effective without receiving all three jabs, he said.