By Koo Lap
Carrie Lam’s government splurged HK$8.4 billion (US$1 billion) public funds to order three Wuhan virus vaccine for Hongkongers for free. The three vaccines involve different technologies. BNT162b2 jointly developed by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in the U.S. and BioNTech in Germany, and the vaccines developed jointly by Oxford University and AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals are ones that involve innovative genetic technology. CoronaVac, developed by Sinovac Biotech in Daxing, Beijing, uses the traditional inactivation technology.
Among the three, BNT162b2 has been reviewed by the regulatory boards in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S., and is considered relatively safe and reliable. It does, however, need to be stored in ultra-low temperature, or it will be invalid. The other two require only normal refrigeration and are easier to work with, but they have not been extensively tested in the third phase, let alone approved by European and American regulatory boards. The government says that Sinovac’s CoronaVac will arrive in January, and Hongkongers will be able to follow the footsteps of the British and American vaccination programs. Are there hopes for the virus to be cleared?
No. Experts have undoubtedly regarded vaccines as the anti-epidemic magic wand, however, the key lies in the extensiveness of vaccination. This is the only way to achieve the so-called “herd immunity”, which works in conjunction with individual immunity, such that the chain of virus transmission can be cut off and eventually be completely cleared. Needless to say, the premise for this theory assumes that the vaccine is effective, safe, and reliable, and should there be side effects, they will be mild. Although three vaccines were ordered, the Carrie Lam government is not giving the citizens a choice. The first vaccine to arrive happens to be the one produced by Sinovac, whose integrity is questionable. How can people show confidence in building “herd immunity” as soon as possible, so that society can clear the virus? Why are people skeptical about Sinovac’s integrity?
Washington Post recently revealed that between 2002 and 2011, Sinovac’s founder and CEO Yin Weidong repeatedly bribed Yin Hongzhang, a regulatory official for drug supervision, to speed up the approval of his vaccine. Once exposed, Yin Hongzhang was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2016, Yin Weidong, however, was exonerated, and not even charged with “improper conduct”. In 2017, the company was found to have been sending red packets to hospitals in Guangdong to promote its hepatitis A vaccine. The company is listed on the Nasdaq in the U.S. but has stopped trading since February 2019 due to shareholder disputes. Integrity is of the utmost importance in the production of pharmaceutical vaccines. With this track record, how are people to have confidence in the vaccine produced by Sinovac?
Arisina Ma Chung-yee, president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association (HKPDA), put it this way: She said that she did not know Sinovac very well, has not used its products, and has not seen the third phase of clinical research results of its vaccine. So even if the vaccine arrives in Hong Kong, she will hold off before getting vaccinated. Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, specialist in Infectious Disease, did not state obviously that he would not get vaccinated like Dr. Ma, but he suggested that the public may wish to “wait and see”. Gabriel Choi Kin, president of the Hong Kong Medical Association, also adopted the wait-and-see attitude, and urged government officials to take the lead in vaccinating to give citizens reassurance. In addition to the skepticism around Sinovac’s integrity, China’s repeated outbreaks of fake vaccines are still fresh in everyone’s minds. It is more than reasonable that from doctors and experts to the general public, doubts about the China-made vaccines are everywhere.
In order to settle the doubts, Carrie Lam promised that as soon as the Sinovac vaccines arrive in Hong Kong, she will lead her team to get vaccinated. During the 2005 heavy metal in drinking water incident, then-Chief Secretary Carrie Lam banned her subordinates from drinking the “humiliation” of proving the safety of the water. Carrie Lam 2020-1: Carrie Lam 2005-0. No longer “humiliated” by being a guinea pig, what exactly is Carrie Lam wishing for?
It is a fact that the vaccine race has broken out around the world. Every country has been developing hundreds of vaccines; China’s attempt to show itself as a rising, powerful country is obvious. Although Pfizer in the U.S. has taken the lead, Sinovac and the state-owned Sinopharm Group have spared no effort in pushing inactivation vaccines in overseas markets. Sinopharm’s vaccines have encountered resistance in Brazil and Peru, but was subsequently approved for use in the UAE and Bahrain. At this moment, if Hong Kong can show its support for Sinovac and place orders, it will be a huge vote of confidence in the China-made vaccines. However, with her public opinion polls nose-dived, even if she “sacrifices for the country” and be the first to get vaccinated, how is Carrie Lam’s credibility going to wash away people’s doubts about the China-produced Sinovac vaccines? Does she still think she’s really a “toughy” even today?
The key to clearing the virus is to allow the majority of the people to get vaccinated earlier. While individual immunity is building, the chain of virus transmission is cut off, and together we achieve “herd immunity”, so that the virus has nowhere to go. One cannot worship two gods. Splurging ample public money on purchasing a vaccine that raises ample doubts, does Carrie Lam look like she is wholeheartedly determined to clear the virus as soon as possible, or more like using this to declare her patriotism for her personal ambition and gain?
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