Rollout of China’s Sinovac vaccine in Hong Kong under threat

Hong Kong is likely to delay the distribution of mainland Chinese producer Sinovac’s Covid-19 vaccine because of a lack of trial data, raising transparency concerns over a shot Beijing wants to sell throughout the developing world.

Any doubts over the Sinovac inoculation risks heightening political tension in Hong Kong over the government’s free vaccine strategy. Carrie Lam, the territory’s leader, is facing a struggle to convince some citizens to accept vaccines developed in mainland China.

Ms Lam said in December that she hoped Sinovac would deliver the vaccine in January and then start distribution to vulnerable members of the city’s population. But the head of the Hong Kong’s government vaccine panel said on Friday that the shot was unlikely to be approved this month.

“We haven’t received an application, we haven’t received documents from them so the advisory panel will not be vetting the Sinovac vaccine. It is not possible for that to go out anytime in Hong Kong yet,” Wallace Lau, convener of the government’s advisory panel on Covid-19 vaccines, told the Financial Times.

Sinovac has been criticised for not releasing enough underlying data to explain varying results for interim phase 3 tests of its CoronaVac vaccine. Efficacy rates for trials in Brazil were lowered to 50.4 per cent, only just above the World Health Organization’s recommended 50 per cent cut-off and far lower than originally indicated.

The confusion over differing rates has prompted governments such as Malaysia and Singapore, which are negotiating to procure the vaccine, to reassure citizens that they would increase scrutiny of the shot.

Apart from Sinovac Biotech, Hong Kong has reached vaccine agreements with Germany’s BioNTech and its mainland Chinese partner Fosun Pharma, as well as Oxford/AstraZeneca.

Prof Lau said BioNTech was the only vaccine that had submitted paperwork. He expected it to be approved this month and its rollout to start in mid-February.

Low public confidence in Hong Kong in vaccines was the biggest threats to the rollout, Prof Lau said.

A survey of 1,200 residents published in January by the Chinese University of Hong Kong predicted an acceptance rate of only 37 per cent of vaccines. This was “much lower than the target required for herd immunity protection, or for relaxing containment measures required for the recovery of the economy”, the university said.

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Sinovac said the different efficacy rates were “objective” results from running multiple independent trials. It also said the 50 per cent figure stemmed from a low threshold for inclusion of cases among Brazilian volunteers, as well as the decision to test only medical workers with a higher risk of transmission than the general population

The company added on Friday it planned to submit its documentation to the Hong Kong government in the next week. Sinovac Biotech CEO Yin Weidong said last week that the company was confident of providing vaccines to Hong Kong on time.

Sinovac has also yet to publish the results of its phase 3 vaccine trials in a medical journal. While this was not a prerequisite for the shot to be examined by his panel, Prof Lau said that to judge a vaccine, clinicians should be able to see results reviewed by other scientists in a journal. 

The company said that publication depended on local partners that ran the trials, and in the case of Brazil, dealings with regulators had been prioritised over preparing a paper.

Asked whether there would be a delay to the Sinovac rollout, a spokeswoman from Hong Kong’s Food and Health Bureau said: “While the government strives for the early supply of vaccines to Hong Kong, we will also ensure that the vaccines concerned satisfy the relevant requirements and procedures.”

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