BioNTech inoculations will resume on April 5 after the makers told the Hong Kong government that the packaging defects posed no safety risk.
Health Director Constance Chan said a metal ring on the cover of the vaccine bottle lost its flexibility at minus 70 degree Celsius during storage, causing a sealing problem that allowed some dry ice in gas form to enter the bottle.
When the bottle was warmed to two to eight degree Celsius before use, the metal ring regained its flexibility while the dry ice gas inside the bottle expanded, resulting in a leakage.
The crimping problem in the bottle did not affect the mRNA or chemicals of the vaccine, which was safe to use, Chan said, citing an interim investigation report submitted by BioNTech.
“It is important, a prudent approach, to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation to suspend the use of the concerned batch,” Chan said.
“It is the manufacturer who possesses the in-depth knowledge of the manufacturing process, and we would rely on the manufacturer to conduct a thorough investigation and submit the full report to us and upon scrutiny of the complete investigation report we would decide what to do.”
On March 24, the Macau and Hong Kong governments announced suspension of the BioNTech product as the makers investigated packaging defects among a batch of their products. Hong Kong’s vaccination workers have reported problems on 57 occasions, involving cracks in containers, leakage due to overpressure from vials, loose caps and stains or marks on the outside of bottles.
Bookings for injections of 183,000 BioNTech doses between March 24 and April 4 were canceled, said Civil Service Secretary Patrick Nip, who is in charge of the vaccination program. People involved would be given new time slots soon or could change their reservations.
As of Wednesday, about 505,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been administered to members of the public. Of these, about 461,000 people have received their first dose, with about 309,700 people receiving the Sinovac vaccine and about 151,300 getting the BioNTech vaccine. About 44,000 people have received their second dose of the Sinovac vaccine.
The number vaccinated, 7% of Hong Kong’s population aged 16 and over getting their first dose, was far below the figure needed to reach the herd immunity target, Nip said.
People should take the initiative to get vaccinated so that Hong Kong could ease its anti-epidemic rules earlier, he said.
A new batch of 300,000 BioNTech doses, packaged by a diferent factory, would arrive in Hong Kong from Germany on Friday and be used next Monday, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said.
Chan said BioNTech batches that had been using before the suspension would remain in storage for now and be replaced with new ones by the manufacturers if necessary.
Between March 26 and 27, Hong Kong reported no local infection and saw hopes that the fourth-wave epidemic could have ended. However, a few local cases were still recorded this week.
On Tuesday, a 25-year-old man who lived on the fourth floor of Block B at Kwan Yick Building Phase Three in Sai Ying Pun, was identified as infected. He tested negative when the residential building became the target of an ambush-style lockdown two weeks ago.
The building was partially evacuated on Wednesday as the new case could be linked to three previous patients who lived in the unit directly below.
As the man works for a property management company on Portland Street, about ten of his colleagues have been placed under quarantine.
Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said after inspecting the building that the virus could have spread vertically through the air.
Yuen said he didn’t find any issues with the pipes in the block but he noted that flats 9 and 10 share light wells. He said when residents turned on exhaust fans in toilets and kitchens, it would create negative pressure indoors, pushing air in the light well into the flat.
On Wednesday, two local infections with unknown sources were recorded. A 23-year-old decorator developed a cough and diarrhoea on March 28. He consulted a private doctor on March 29 and his sample submitted on the same day tested positive. He last went to work on March 27.
A 56-year-old restaurant worker developed shortness of breath on Monday. She went to a community testing center on Tuesday and tested positive.
Between March 18 and 31, 127 cases were recorded in Hong Kong, including 52 local cases of which 16 are from unknown sources.
On Thursday, the government eased some anti-epidemic rules. Cinemas and theaters could be 75% full, compared with the previous 50%. Swimming pools and beaches would reopen. Indoor religious activities could resume with up to 30% of the premises’ capacity being used.
Health officials have called on the public to stay vigilant in the coming two weeks, especially during Easter holidays between April 2 and 6.