Hong Kong coronavirus: herd immunity could take more than a year to reach, experts warn, after vaccinations drop 35 per cent
- Previous estimate had been 300 days, but public confidence hit by vaccine packaging defects and fears over side effects of jab
- City leader Carrie Lam says officials will soon announce fresh incentives for residents to get inoculated
Government pandemic adviser David Hui Shu-cheong hoped the resumption of bookings for the BioNTech vaccination on Saturday might lead to the public regaining confidence in the scheme, while another expert Lau Yu-lung said the government had to be more transparent, and should never compromise on free choice for vaccinations.
As of 10pm, slots for the German-made jabs on Tuesday – the earliest available – were fully booked or nearly all filled at 17 of 21 centres citywide, but other days this month were mostly available. There were still slots in the coming three weeks at all five of the community vaccination centres administering the Chinese-made Sinovac doses.
For the Chinese-made Sinovac, there were still slots available in the coming three weeks at four of the community centres. Only quotas in the 18 outpatient clinics under the Hospital Authority were mostly full.
About 3,200 people made online bookings to receive their first and second doses of the Sinovac vaccine, while about 42,300 people booked the BioNTech jab, compared with 11,000 people on 23 March when the government suspended reservations. It was unclear whether the surge was down to rebooking of timeslots by people who were assigned a session after the suspension was put in place.
Bookings resumed as the city recorded just two new Covid-19 infections – one imported and one locally traceable – on Saturday, the lowest in about a week. The infections took the city’s tally to 11,501, with 205 related deaths. Fewer than 10 people also tested preliminary-positive for the coronavirus.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on her Facebook page on Friday that the government would soon announce further incentives for people to get inoculated, and pointed out that workers in the catering industry were already permitted to avoid mandatory testing every 14 days if they had been given the jabs.
“We will announce other similar measures later to encourage the public,” she said, noting that people who did not take the shots would be unable to travel as soon as those who did. “The public should get vaccinated as soon as possible, rather than taking a wait-and-see approach.”
Lam said it would take someone between 35 and 42 days to get two doses and be fully vaccinated, and, as an example of the benefits of doing so, noted people who did not take the shots would be unable to travel as soon as those who did.
Available data showed that during the 10 days from March 24 to April 2, during which vaccination was suspended for the BioNTech jabs, the injection rate for people receiving the first dose of Sinovac dropped by 35 per cent compared to the nine days before the suspension.
Only about 67,200 residents, or an average of around 6,700 people a day, received their first dose of Sinovac during that period. In contrast, more than 103,500 residents took the jab in the 10 days before.
“Definitely there is a ripple effect – not only were BioNTech jabs suspended, the media has also reported more deaths [of inoculated people] despite no link being established between the fatalities and the two jabs. Residents would be worried about the overall safety of the vaccines,” government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said.
So far, 11 chronically ill residents have died after receiving the Sinovac vaccine and another two people, also with underlying conditions, died after taking the BioNTech shot, leading to mounting public concerns over potential side effects.
“Such a slow vaccination rate will definitely pose delays for the city to reach herd immunity, and may also slow down the process for the government to relax social-distancing measures,” Hui said.
But Hui said he believed that as soon as the city began using BioNTech again, and if the World Health Organization approved the Sinovac jabs by the end of April, people would be more eager to get the shots.
He also suggested that health authorities offer more information surrounding the deaths, and the underlying illnesses that caused them, to prove there had not been a surge in fatalities after Hong Kong’s mass vaccination programme began.
Echoing Hui, Lau of the University of Hong Kong, who chairs a scientific committee on vaccine preventable diseases under the Centre for Health Protection, said the public’s doubts, coupled with social contradictions and mutual suspicion, were the major causes delaying the city reaching herd immunity.
“It was not easy to change the status quo … the government needs to be open and transparent about what happened during the vaccination process, especially the fact that there was no direct causal relationship between the deaths and the vaccination. The explanation has to be precise,” he said.
Lau added that allowing people to choose whether to get vaccinated was a principle that could not be compromised, while introducing incentives, such as quarantine-free travel, would be a way to encourage more people to receive the jabs.
Respiratory medicine specialist Dr Leung Chi-chiu said under the current rate of vaccination, it might take longer than a year for 70 per cent of the population – the expected threshold for herd immunity – to get vaccinated. Leung earlier estimated it would take about another 300 days for the city to reach the goal.
“There is only an average of 5,000 to 6,000 people taking the Sinovac jab each day, and together with the resumption of BioNTech vaccination, I estimate the overall rate could reach around 20,000 each day, but that might only last for one or two weeks,” he said.
“Those who have refused to get the shots are still very concerned and might continue to take a wait-and-see attitude.”
Leung said the government had not been able to erase the public’s doubts surrounding the safety of the jabs, and as a result vulnerable residents, including elderly people, might not be willing to “take the risk”.
According to government statistics, of the more than 470,000 people who have had their first jab, one-fourth were aged between 60 and 69 years old, while only around 12 per cent were over 70.
“These elderly are very vulnerable and may get serious symptoms easily if they are infected, and the city might find it hard to become infection-free if they are not willing to get vaccinated, especially once the borders are reopened,” Leung said.
Ben Lam, who is in his 30s and works in public relations, was assigned a new time slot for his first BioNTech shot on April 11, after his vaccination was cancelled last-minute when that programme was suspended on March 24.
He was unhappy with the government for giving him an appointment with a date and time chosen at random
“I wasn’t consulted whether I’m available before being given with that date,” Lam said. “Now I need to reassign my schedule to fit in the vaccination time slot.”
While he could cancel his assigned slot and rebook another one for a time that suited, Lam said that was “too troublesome”.
As of Saturday, just 6.3 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population, or 475,100 people, had received their first dose of vaccine. Around 323,800 took the Sinovac version, while about 151,300 chose the BioNTech jab.
About 0.9 per cent of the population, or 68,900 people, have already received their second dose of the Sinovac vaccine and are now fully vaccinated.