The first consignment of BioNTech vaccine is unloaded from a Cathay Pacific plane in Hong Kong in February. Photo: Handout

More batches of Chinese vaccine against Covid-19 are primed for Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, with planes carrying supplies landing in airports across the region. 

The first consignment of one million doses from Chinese drugmaker Sinovac was flown into Hong Kong on February 19 as an advance delivery. The company’s plant in Beijing has extended operating hours to deliver another six million shots due to arrive in the former British territory before the end of March. 

On Monday, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam and some members of her cabinet, flanked by reporters, were given their first jabs in a campaign to drum up awareness and boost city-wide vaccine take-up. Inoculations for the elderly and medical workers will be widely available from Friday. 

Carrie Lam gets her first dose of Sinovac’s vaccine in Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

Beijing has also promised several ASEAN nations alone about 250 million vials, according to back-of-envelope calculations based on Chinese state media reports since the third quarter of 2020. Major recipient countries in the region include Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. 

Indonesia, the most populous nation in the bloc, has received a lion’s share of the shipments, taking delivery of about 18 million shots from Sinovac as of January. 

Sinovac drug’s underwhelming efficacy rate marginally above 50% as seen in some final-stage human trial data from countries like Indonesia, Brazil and Turkey has not damaged President Joko Widodo’s trust in the Chinese formula. He was given two jabs last month in front of cameras as he pleaded with people to roll up their sleeves.   

Beijing’s donations have also induced positive responses from Laos, Myanmar and Brunei, whose leaders thanked China for its largesse.  

Doubts, nonetheless, about Sinovac vaccine’s potency is spreading quickly after disappointing trial results suggested it might not set off an immune response to any extent comparable with its Western peers. But with the virus still doing the rounds in the region, some countries are still pushing ahead with their purchase. 

In Singapore, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said a planning group had made months-long assessments of candidates before deciding which to source and that the Sinovac vaccine had been shortlisted, together with those from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. The city-state has signed an advance purchase agreement with the Chinese firm, but its health watchdog expects a longer delay to grant its approval for a rollout to citizens.  

Thailand has ordered two million shots while the Philippines has ordered 25 million.

Still, buyers in these countries reportedly have inadequate access to vital data about final-stage studies, including duration of protection and its effect on the elderly and people with comorbidities.

Sinovac, meanwhile, has taken time to address concerns, issuing data through press releases rather than publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. 

A medical worker shows China’s Sinovac Biotech vaccine at a public health center in Jakarta. Photo: Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto/AFP

For instance, data furnished by Sinovac for a vaccine evaluation panel convened by Hong Kong’s Department of Health had not been peer-reviewed and some information was lacking.   

Gabriel Leung, dean of the University of Hong Kong’s Medical School who sits on the panel that promptly green-lighted Sinovac’s drug last week before the first batch was delivered to the city, said Sinovac had not provided specific data about the vaccine’s effectiveness against mutant strains. But he said the Chinese jabs, of the attenuated type, had been proven to be very safe for the general public. 

Leung revealed that statistics from the Chinese firm showed on average only one in a million takers would suffer severe anaphylactic reactions and that more than six million people in China and overseas had received the vaccine as of the end of January. 

He said HKU would launch several research programs to track any side effects and hypersensitivities in the city’s mass immunization drive, as the university would be tasked with operating one community vaccination center.

Asked if he would receive the Chinese shots he and other experts on the panel had approved, Leung said he would get any vaccine allocated to the university by the government. The vaccination center to be managed by HKU would administer the mRNA vaccine made in Germany by BioNTech. 

Hong Kong has also placed orders on BioNTech, with the first million doses due to arrive by the end of this month.   

Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on China’s healthcare system, told an online forum hosted by Singapore’s ASEAN Studies Center-Yusof Ishak Institute last week that despite stumbling blocks like lack of trust in Chinese products and geopolitical rivalry, recipient countries in the region had weighed the political and diplomatic pros and cons before deciding to buy or take products from China. 

“Chinese vaccines are, generally speaking, welcomed across Southeast Asia when some state leaders are taking the lead to get inoculated,” Huang said. 

Meanwhile, a recent paper about a vaccine take-up survey held by China’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that less than 28% of the 756 medical professionals and workers interviewed in the eastern Zhejiang province indicated their willingness to be vaccinated using indigenous drugs. 

Gao Fu, the chief of the National CDC, is a co-author of the thesis about the poll conducted in September and October. It found that people with high academic qualifications demonstrated lower take-up intentions. The paper said Beijing, while focusing on promoting vaccines overseas, should also examine why the confidence among some doctors at home is far from ideal. 

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