Hong Kong executives, including expats, are opting to take China’s Sinovac vaccine over the more effective BioNTech/Pfizer shot in the hope it will speed up visa and re-entry procedures for mainland China, according to local health officials.
The move follows an extraordinary offer from Beijing to provide “visa facilitation” for overseas visitors who choose to be vaccinated with a jab made in China rather than a foreign one. The proposal has underlined fears of vaccine nationalism during the pandemic.
The Hong Kong government has offered residents a choice between the BioNTech jab, which has a 95 per cent efficacy rate, and the CoronaVac shot manufactured by Sinovac, whose efficacy rate is just 50 per cent.
One Hong Kong-based executive at a US company said he chose Sinovac’s jab “purely” for business reasons. “I do believe it will get me better treatment for getting a visa,” he said.
“[My expat friends] all think it makes no sense to get the Sinovac when the BioNTech has a much higher efficiency rate,” he added. “But I need to start travelling.”
Although Hong Kong is part of China, a border with passport controls is maintained between them as part of the autonomy granted to the territory on its handover from the UK in 1997.
Hong Kong’s broader community has shown a reluctant attitude toward the government’s vaccination programme, partly because of underlying distrust of the government among many people as well as concerns about the safety of the jabs.
But some company executives have been more willing to consider the Sinovac vaccine if it sped up access to the mainland. During the pandemic, China has enforced strict travel restrictions on those wishing to enter from Hong Kong, with some exemptions.
“Visa facilitation applies only to applicants who have been inoculated with Covid-19 vaccines produced in China,” the Chinese government said last month, without providing further details on the vaccines.
Yet some were concerned that European and other western governments might not accept China-made vaccines for quarantine-free travel.
Iceland, one of the first countries to offer quarantine-free travel to vaccinated visitors, will only recognise vaccines authorised by the European Medicines Agency or the World Health Organization. No China-made shots are on either’s list.
Yeung Chiu-fat, a general practitioner and the former president of the Hong Kong Doctors Union, said he had vaccinated more than 200 people with the Sinovac jab since the beginning of the programme in late February.
About 30 per cent had taken the vaccine to help them return to mainland China. “They were pretty excited,” he said.
Another Hong Kong executive said getting back into China was “essential” for his job, so he had to choose the Sinovac jab.
William Chui, president of The Society of Hospital Pharmacists, said some patients had joked about taking a “mix-and-match” approach so they could travel to China and elsewhere by getting their first jab as Sinovac and their second as BioNTech. “But as a pharmacist, I don’t recommend it,” he said.
Many international executives are based in Hong Kong, but the bulk of their company’s business is on the mainland.
Hong Kong business chambers have warned that mainland travel restrictions are hurting the city’s attractiveness as a base for companies’ China operations, with some considering moving some functions to Shanghai or elsewhere.
Apart from its jab’s lower efficacy rate, Sinovac has also faced accusations of having not been sufficiently transparent in releasing data about phase 3 trials. Hong Kong’s government panel of experts said the shot’s efficacy rate rose to 62.3 per cent if the second dose of vaccine came after a 28-day break.
Singapore’s health authorities have said that Sinovac failed to supply sufficient information for them to evaluate the jab, and that they have asked for more data.
Sinovac did not immediately respond to a request for comment.