Authorities in Hong Kong and Macao have suspended the rollout of BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine citing a packaging defect found in their first batch of doses.
Both governments said in statements Wednesday they had received a letter from BioNTech and its Chinese partner, Fosun Pharma, indicating an issue with the seal on individual vials in batch number 210102.
According to government figures, as of Tuesday, 150,200 people in Hong Kong had received their first dose of the BioNTech vaccine, which outside of China is partnered with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
Although both Fosun and BioNTech “have not found any reason to believe that product safety is at risk,” the Hong Kong government said it was suspending vaccinations involving batch 210102, and halting plans to administer a second batch pending an investigation.
“These are preventive measures to continuously ensure the safety of the vaccination program,” the statement read.
Prior to halting the BioNTech rollout, Hong Kong offered residents a choice of two vaccines, BioNTech, and Chinese produced Sinovac. Now those who wish to get vaccinated must either wait until the issue with the BioNTech doses is resolved or go with Sinovac.
Hong Kong is expected to receive doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at a later date.
Slow rollout linked to vaccine hesitancy
The BioNTech suspension will likely blunt Hong Kong’s mass vaccination drive, which is already moving at a slower-than-expected pace.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday that 6% of the population had taken their first shot, which she described as “not bad,” though admitted the city could “do better.”
“Hong Kong is actually very fortunate, as far as vaccination is concerned,” said Lam. “When many places all over the world are scrambling for vaccines, we have a pretty assured supply of vaccines for the people of Hong Kong.”
The government decided last week to expand the program to include all residents over the age of 30, who account for nearly 80% of the population. The renewed vaccine drive followed an uptick in case numbers that saw hundreds of people sent to quarantine camps across the territory.
Authorities began rolling out the Sinovac vaccine first, on February 18, followed by BioNTech in early March.
Though an estimated 252,800 people have so far received their first dose of Sinovac, hesitancy has been an issue, with many citing a lack of public data regarding clinical trials.
In January late-stage trials conducted in Brazil revealed Sinovac to have an efficacy rate of 50.38%, only barely crossing the 50% efficacy threshold as set by the World Health Organization.
There have been reports of local doctors recommending their patients take the BioNTech vaccine, due to the lack of public data for Sinovac.
Lam condemned those medical professionals Monday and accused them of trying to “sabotage” the government’s vaccination program by “spreading fake news, misinformation and rumors.”
“Especially when these people are health professionals, I am extremely disappointed, because at the end of the day if Hong Kong has a major outbreak again, the people who suffer will be our healthcare professionals, especially those working in the Hospital Authority’s facilities,” she said.
Reports of a number of deaths among patients over 60 who had recently received the vaccine have also fueled public concern, however, the government said preliminary findings indicated the vaccine was not responsible.
While Hong Kong’s vaccine rollout has been not proceeded as quickly as planned, its preventative measures have been among the world’s most effective.
As of Wednesday, just 11,410 people in this city of more than 7 million had contracted the virus. Just 204 have died, fewer than the number of people killed in the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s. And there have been no hard lockdowns.