A box containing a Covid-19 vaccine by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech. Photo: AFP/Nelson Almeida

Hong Kong’s government has secured up to 15 million vaccine shots – twice the size of its population – both from Chinese and Western drugmakers, with the first batch of 1 million due to arrive in early January.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam made the announcement in a hastily arranged press conference on Friday afternoon and hinted that a citywide inoculation program would be progressively rolled out once the initial consignments arrive next month.

If the procurements and shipments proceed as planned, Hong Kong may become the first jurisdiction in the Asia-Pacific region to launch mass vaccinations against the novel coronavirus. 

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam says the city will receive 15 million shots of Covid vaccines from Sinovac and Pfizer early next year with more to follow in the second half of 2021. Photo: RTHK

Lam said the city’s frontline medical personnel, senior citizens and other vulnerable groups would be the first to get the attenuated vaccines from China’s Sinovac, which would supply 7.5 million shots in total with an advance batch of 1 million to be delivered next month. 

Pfizer, with its German and Chinese partners BioNTech and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, will also ship the same amount of their messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines within the first quarter of 2021. 

Hong Kong is also finalizing talks with AstraZeneca for 7.5 million doses of the Oxford-developed non-replicable virus vector vaccine, which are due to arrive in the second half of next year. A deal with a fourth supplier, which was not named in the press conference but is believed to be China’s state-owned Sinopharm, will be announced shortly. 

“We aim to accord priority to about 3 million Hongkongers including doctors, nurses, the elderly and care home workers, and then vaccinate the rest of the 7.5 million residents within 2021, using drugs from at least two different manufactures, so as to reopen our society and economy,” said Lam.

Commuters, mostly masked, at an interchange station in Hong Kong’s metro network. The city now has the highest rate of daily new infections across the Greater China Region. Photo: China News Service

She added that anticipating a world-wide scramble for vaccines, the government acted early, set aside ample funding and approached several leading pharmaceutical companies across the West and in mainland China as early as May, when several candidates of various types entered final-stage human trials.  

She admitted that the government was racing against time to place huge orders with drugmakers for vaccines still in clinical trials, without exhaustive data and analyses of their efficacy, and some could fail to produce optimal protection.

“That is why we have ordered vaccines of different types from different suppliers to maximize the effect and protection,” said Lam. 

An expert panel convened by the city’s Department of Health viewed available data and information furnished by suppliers and selected these vaccines. Lam said the decision to make public the deals with the suppliers was meant to quash rumors, but the exact pricing will be kept confidential.

She promised to give more details about the costs when mass vaccinations started next year. 

The Hong Kong government also said logistical support from the city’s airport to major hospitals had been readied for the distribution and storage of the vaccines, with one type of vaccine needing to be chilled at -70 degrees Celsius. 

It is believed that Hong Kong’s small population, excellent transportation and healthcare infrastructure, as well as the government’s reputedly straightforward negotiation strategy that did not seek big discounts from drugmakers, were all reasons the city could get a supply of vaccines ahead of most countries in the region.   

Hong Kong also announced new compulsory hotel quarantine arrangements for arrivals from places other than mainland China, in anticipation of a “big inflow” of people from the West in the run-up to the Christmas and New Year break.

About 12,000 rooms at 36 hotels have been reserved and arrivals will be tested multiple times for the virus and must foot all the bills themselves. 

Hong Kong is still in the grip of a Covid-19 outbreak with 86 new cases on Friday. The city’s daily tally is consistently the highest across the Greater China Region, according to official statistics. Hong Kong’s total caseload, at 7,378, is now second only to Wuhan, the initial ground zero of the world-engulfing pandemic. 

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