Vaccine Politics in Hong Kong | Wu Si-bang

Published (HKT): 2021.02.24 09:20

A recent deal for Taiwan to buy five million doses of a novel coronavirus vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech is suspected to have been obstructed due to Chinese interference, leading to controversy from both sides of the border. It turns out that Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group has already paid a hefty licensing fee and invested millions for a stake in the German firm, obtaining exclusive distribution rights for BioNTech in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, making it difficult for Taiwan to secure vaccines. In spite of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s emphasis that international cooperation on vaccines does not involve geopolitical considerations, China’s vaccine assistance to a large number of developing countries, such as Pakistan, has objectively strengthened China’s international influence.

The Taiwanese government’s assertion that vaccine procurement is a scientific rather than a political issue is a natural attempt to avoid the controversy. The fact that the Hong Kong government’s fight against the epidemic claims to be scientifically based, but leaves political traces everywhere, demonstrates the complex politics of vaccines.

In Hong Kong, the fourth wave of the epidemic has already exceeded 10,000 confirmed cases (10,885) and brought the number of deaths close to the 200-mark (197) as of Feb 22, with a far more severe infection or mortality rate per 100,000 people than in Taiwan. Under such circumstances, the China-developed and -produced Sinovac vaccine was unanimously recommended for “urgent use” by the government’s Advisory Panel on COVID-19 Vaccines on the grounds that “the benefits outweigh the risks,” even though it has only a 50% efficacy rate, far less than those of Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines produced in Europe and the United States, and despite the lack of data from phase III clinical studies and publications in medical journals. This has triggered a controversy in Hong Kong that politics overrides professionalism. Since the function of various coronavirus vaccines is to prevent morbidity rather than to prevent infection, the higher the efficiency of the vaccine, the higher the proportion of people willing to receive the jab. The government’s move is as good as a further blow to Hong Kong people’s confidence in vaccines.

In addition, the person coordinating the vaccination campaign is not Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, who is responsible for health issues, but Patrick Nip, the Secretary for the Civil Service, who has no medical or public health background at all. Nip has served as the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs. In Hong Kong, he is widely regarded as Carrie Lam’s favorite, and may even be a potential candidate to become the Chief Executive in the future.

During the anti-ELAB movement in 2019, Patrick Nip’s car has been once surrounded, and things being thrown. In the same year, his family bought two city properties at once before the policy address announcement and got into a dispute of conflicts of interests. He thought his political career was coming to an end, but instead of stepping down in April 2020 along with the other four secretaries, he was, instead, kept by Beijing to stay in the government. Nip now mainly deals with political tasks such as civil servants’ oath-taking and is currently in charge of vaccines, obviously a chance given by Beijing to redeem himself.

Thirdly, the first vaccines arriving in Hong Kong are, of course, Sinovac from China. Carrie Lam and the government’s senior officials have all been vaccinated in public as a promotion. In fact, those pro-Beijing members, including those from the National People’s Congress Hong Kong region and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, who need to travel back and forth from China and Hong Kong, have already been vaccinated with vaccines produced by Chinese medical group. The Chinese vaccines seem to be an alternative “vaccine passport” within the government. It is risky but necessary to demonstrate one’s political stance and loyalty.

Lastly, according to the latest survey from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in January this year, only 17.2% of interviewed citizens trust Beijing, and 57.7% of those do not. Patrick Nip, Sophia Chan, and officials from the Hong Kong Liaison Office enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of one million China-made vaccines, with comments such as “wholeheartedly thank you for the full support of the Central People’s Government,” “fully shows the sincere concern of the central government for Hong Kong people.” They wanted to use vaccines to strengthen the fragile China-Hong Kong relations. But the fact that Hong Kong’s epidemic originates from China has been deliberately overlooked, and Hong Kong not able to close the border to fight the epidemic is also due to the pressure and influence from China.

The anti-epidemic work of Hong Kong consists mainly of vaccination and downloading the “Leave Home Safe” app to trace infected persons. The government has even set up a security fund of HK$1 billion to support those who die or get sick due to the vaccination and established an Expert Committee on Clinical Events Assessment Following COVID-19 Immunisation to deal with problems relating to the assessments. Some critics said promotion and explanation are the key factors to attract more people to be vaccinated. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data also said the “Leave Home Sage” app complies with the requirement of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance. But it is unwilling to admit the key is people having a problem trusting the government.

In view of the above, the world is facing a problem that there are not enough vaccines, and they cannot be distributed evenly everywhere in the world. Hong Kong has created a politicized epidemic prevention works and has brought itself an enormous challenge.

(Wu Si-bang, Hong Kong Scholar)

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