Hong Kong’s hesitant vaccination drive was dealt a fresh blow on Wednesday when officials temporarily halted BioNTech SE COVID-19 vaccinations. A fumbled communication effort, after months of mixing politics and public health, threatens to further undermine trust.
Much like Europe, grappling with the impact of AstraZeneca Plc vaccine suspensions, Hong Kong faces the prospect of having to overcome a sudden stoppage — this time triggered by stained vials and loose caps affecting what is now its most popular shot. An investigation will have to uncover the cause of the packaging trouble, and consequences, if any, for those already injected. BioNTech and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, which has the rights to market the vaccine in Greater China, say there is no reason to believe the product is unsafe. Officials say spoiled vials were jettisoned, and the pause is a precaution.
The trouble is that prudence has side effects in territories with pre-existing conditions. So too does poor messaging that left those arriving for vaccine appointments, and staff meeting them, in the dark. Neighboring Macau, similarly affected, ended up issuing a statement first.
Hong Kong was always going to struggle to run a mass vaccination campaign, given deep distrust of government, one of its least-popular leaders, and an enforced political transformation as Beijing tightens its grip and removes the last vestiges of democracy. Surveys showed that well before Wednesday, Hong Kongers planned to hold off. A lack of urgency — because cases have remained low — hasn’t helped. Nor have a handful of deaths among those who took the Chinese-made alternative offered in the city, Sinovac Biotech Ltd., though no causal link has been established. Those shots have not been stopped.
Faced with this hesitancy, instead of tackling specific concerns and questions — let alone even seeking to understand the public’s vaccine anxiety — leader Carrie Lam has been admonishing her citizens: “If we require people to go for compulsory testing, they won’t do it, and now we encourage people to take the vaccines, people don’t do that,” she said last week. Blaming others is rarely a good tactic.
Worse, officials have criticized those making unfavorable comments about Sinovac. An alliance of hospital employees was accused of spreading misinformation. The group argued it merely warned older residents about concerns over a vaccine that they say lacks sufficient trial data. One private clinic was dropped from the vaccine administration list after promoting BioNTech. All of this ignores that Sinovac reported efficacy rates are lower, based on available information — and that data is still insufficient. BioNTech has been found to be 95% effective, a rate at which Hong Kong could more speedily reach herd immunity.
That was the backdrop against which news of BioNTech’s suspension trickled through.
With so little political capital and public confidence to spare, the government should have swiftly confronted the problem. Hong Kong’s centers on Wednesday morning had hastily printed paper closure signs, confusion, and some took early appointments anyway. An otherwise impressive logistical operation stumbled at a key moment. Cancellation text messages were not sent out to those who had booked until late morning, by which stage alarm and conspiracies had spread like wildfire.
With luck, the probe will be speedy and vaccinations can resume soon, so an economy ailing from over a year of near-constant restrictions can begin to recover. Unfortunately, this is an administration that has constantly snatched defeat from the jaws of pandemic victory. It can do the opposite this time, not only by acting swiftly but by using the hiatus to assuage concerns and to engage with citizens — for a change.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues.
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