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On Friday morning in Hong Kong, a queue of some 50 people snaked through a simple maze of temporary barriers on a quiet sidewalk between a soccer pitch and the administration center of the Kowloon Bay Sports Center. Those in line—most over age 60, some accompanied by caregivers and family members—were among the very first participants in Hong Kong’s COVID-19 vaccination program, launched on Friday about 13 months after the city reported its first COVID-19 case.
“It seems that everything has gone quite smoothly. There have been a few hiccups, but nothing we can’t solve,” says Dr. Eddie Cheung of Hong Kong Medical Consultants (HKMC), one of the private medical organizations that has partnered with the government to assist with the vaccine rollout.
Hong Kong has kept COVID-19 case levels relatively low throughout the pandemic, with just short of 11,000 cases and 200 deaths to date. But the low case numbers have come at the cost of the economy. Hong Kong’s closed borders effectively eliminated tourism last year, and the government’s heavy restrictions on social gatherings have crushed the hospitality industry. Hong Kong’s economy entered a second year of recession in 2020, contracting 6.1%.
With an ailing economy, Hong Kong leaders are eager to see life return to normal. But the legacy of the 2019 anti-government protests—which pushed the city into its first recession in a decade—tainted Hong Kong’s vaccine rollout, too, as a distrusting public and skeptical media questioned why the government is using a Chinese vaccine that’s less effective than those made in Europe and the U.S.
The HKMC had only a week to prepare for the vaccination drive, after the government determined which center the group would run and which vaccine it would distribute—although Cheung says the group had “mentally” prepared much further in advance.
The HKMC is partnering with the Hong Kong College of Nursing to assist with its target of administering 2,000 vaccines a day at the Kowloon Bay Sports Center, recruiting over 200 nurses and 20 doctors to work in shifts across 12-hour days.
“In the initial phase, we’re not meeting that quota and will possibly be administering 1,000 jabs a day. But hopefully as we streamline processes, we’ll meet 2,000 injections a day,” Cheung says.
The government says it expects to have the majority of the city’s 7.5 million vaccinated by the end of the year.
The Kowloon Bay Sports Center is one of five temporary vaccination centers that sprang into operation in Hong Kong on Friday. The five centers are all distributing the mainland China–developed Sinovac vaccine, while another 24 centers will distribute the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine when it arrives in Hong Kong next month. The BioNTech vaccine was due to arrive Thursday, but on Wednesday the government announced delivery had been delayed several days.
The Sinovac vaccine is one of the more controversial COVID-19 inoculations developed over the past year—particularly in Hong Kong, where distrust of China’s central government remains at an all-time high following the pro-democracy protests of 2019.
Unlike other vaccine developers, Sinovac has yet to publish data from its Phase III trials in a peer-reviewed journal, and the data that is available shows it has a lower efficacy—51%—than other options.
All the same, Hong Kongers snapped up all available appointments to receive the vaccine within hours of the government launching its registration service on Tuesday.
Hong Kong has designated several groups of people as priority recipients for the vaccine: those aged 60 or above, residents and staff of nursing homes, people with disabilities, essential public service workers, and people providing cross-boundary transportation and those working at border crossings and ports.
Professor Thomas Wong, vice president of Hong Kong College of Nursing, says distributing the Sinovac vaccine first has also actually made things a little easier on HKMC logistically.
“The temperature of storage and timing of delivery is very important with the BioNTech vaccine, so in terms of skill we’d have to be very specialized. Whereas the Sinovac vaccine is just a normal vaccine, and I’m sure every nurse has delivered those before,” Wong says.
The steady stream of people moving through the temporary vaccination center at the Kowloon Bay Sports Center showed there’s faith in the vaccine among the public too.
“Every vaccine is the same, only experts understand the data,” says Wong Chorming, a 46-year-old cross-border driver who received his first jab of the Sinovac vaccine Friday.
“I am not too worried about the effectiveness of the vaccine. Whichever vaccine is available I will get it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from China or overseas.”
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