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COVID-19 Vaccines In Hong Kong: Your Questions Answered

COVID-19 Vaccines In Hong Kong
Health & WellnessPost Category - Health & WellnessHealth & Wellness

Two COVID-19 vaccines are currently available in Hong Kong. Here’s everything you need to know.

The last 14 months have been a crash course in medical jargon that we wish we’d never had to bother with. Coronavirus, PPE, particle filtration, surgical masks, respirators, quarantine, quarantine bubbles and now mRNA (this one has a more hopeful ring to it!). 

While the Hong Kong Government recently placed a temporary hold on the BioNTech vaccines (because of faulty packaging), it’s hoped that the vaccines will be back up and running again soon.

Amidst the tumult that is COVID-19, news that the Hong Kong government is expanding its vaccination programme to include more demographics is a huge relief for many. Now other than the priority groups (including health workers and those with chronic medical issues), the following can apply for the much-needed shot in the arm (literally):

  • Domestic workers
  • Students (16 years or older) who study overseas
  • People between the age group of 30 to 55 years old

(book your vaccine here

Many people are stoked about the possibility that mass vaccinations signal the beginning of the end of the dreaded #pandemiclife! But the vaccine is new, the buzz it generates is intense, it’s only natural to have questions and anxiety at the moment. So, we turn to science to tell you everything we know so far.

Jump to:
COVID-19 Vaccines Available In Hong Kong
How Do These Vaccines Work?
Can You Get COVID-19 In Between The Two Shots?
Can You Get COVID-19 After Getting The Double Doses?
Should You Take The Jab If You’ve Already Been Infected With COVID-19?
Is It Mandatory To Get Vaccinated?
Should Pregnant Or Breastfeeding Women Take it?
Vaccine Side-Effects: What Do They Mean?
What About The Long-Term Health Effects Of These Vaccines?
Should You Take The Vaccine If You Have A History Of Allergies Or Serious Health Concerns?
How Long Will The Vaccine Be Effective After The Current Two Doses?
Can You Still Spread The Infection After Getting Vaccinated?
How Long Will It Take For The Virus To Disappear?
When Will Things Go Back To Normal?

Editor’s note: This article is intended to present information about the available COVID-19 vaccinations in Hong Kong. As with any vaccinations or medical-related advice, always consult your doctor for confirmation and insights that are specific to you and your family before taking any medication. 

Read more: Where To Get A Coronavirus Test In Hong Kong And Other FAQs

COVID-19 Vaccines In Hong Kong

COVID-19 Vaccines Available In Hong Kong

Hong Kong government has ordered from three major pharmaceuticals (along with plans to secure a fourth option) to inoculate its 7.5 million population. The choices so far are:

  1. Sinovac Biotech (Hong Kong Limited) CoronaVac vaccine based on an inactivated virus; offered at hospitals and private clinics
  2. BioNTech/Fosun Pharma vaccine (also known commercially as Comirnaty) which uses mRNA technology; needs extreme refrigeration temperatures, will be available at community centres (BioNTech is the developer of the vaccine and it partnered with manufacturing companies Pfizer and Fosun to make and distribute the vaccines) 
  3. AstraZeneca in collaboration with the University of Oxford (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19). This vaccine will arrive in July in Hong Kong

Here’s an overview of all the currently available COVID-19 vaccines:

Pharma Company: Sinovac BioNTech/Fosun/ Pharma/Pfizer* AstraZeneca/Oxford (available from July 2021)
Vaccine Brand Name: CoronaVac BNT162b2 AZD1222
Vaccine Type: Inactivated Viral mRNA Viral vector (genetically modified virus)
Country of Origin: China Germany United Kingdom
Shots Required: 2 2 2
Effectiveness: 50 to 65% 95% 62.1% to 90%
Storage Requirement: Standard refrigerator temp at 2 -8C -70C in super cold containers Standard refrigerator temp at 2-8C

Vaccine supplies are pretty tight worldwide, and so choice right now is too much of an ask. In most developed countries, people don’t know which jab they’ll get till they walk inside a clinic or it’s the health officer who decides who gets what.  So we’re pretty pumped that Hong Kong is giving us options!

*In Hong Kong, Macau and Mainland China, Pfizer is not in the equation for the BioNTech jab. It’s a bit confusing – basically for Greater China, Fosun Pharma has the sales, regulatory and distribution rights. A million doses have been ordered for Hong Kong, manufactured in Germany but distributed by Fosun Pharma. For the rest of the world, Pfizer is the co-supplier of the BioNTech formula.

How Do These Vaccines Work?

Vaccines typically take decades of research to develop. The fastest one so far was the mumps vaccine which took four years to hit the shelves (though its development relied heavily on groundwork that had previously been done). But we’re living in miraculous times.

Within a year of identifying the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China, the jabs were not only ready but being distributed at astonishing speed! As of now, close to 278 million people around the globe have already been fully inoculated! In January 2020, this was an inconceivable thought. Unprecedented even for science.

Until now, there were two main ways to make vaccines – (1) those that use the whole microbe and (2) the sub-unit ones that use just a specific part of the virus.

Vaccines using the whole microbe were either: “live-attenuated(live, but weakened),  “inactivated’” (killed) or “viral vector” varieties (a safe virus created with certain pathogens that trigger the immune response). These three types have been used for decades in flu, Polio, MRR vaccinations, etc. The sub-unit type of vaccine uses just the proteins or sugars of a virus. Many childhood vaccines like those for tetanus and diphtheria belong to this type.

But the BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (and Moderna’s in the US) relies on mRNA technology. Never in the history of mankind has this method been used on such a grand-scale before! The World Health Organization (WHO) explains the different types of vaccine well.

How Does mRNA Technology Work Vs Traditional Vaccines?

The Messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine consists of two shots given three weeks apart and doesn’t need the live virus at all. In fact, it only uses the virus’ genetic code rather than any part of the virus itself. Once injected into the muscles, it stimulates the body’s own immune response so that the immune system thinks of it as an instruction manual for tackling the intruder. It reads those instructions, makes its own protein spikes which are not enough to mimic COVID-19 symptoms but the process trains the body to fend off the real thing.

Beijing-based Sinovac’s CoronaVac is an inactivated vaccine, i.e. it uses a dead virus to stimulate the body’s immune system. In the vaccine business, this method has been used for over a century in vaccines such as flu and polio. The efficacy of CoronaVac might be low (50 to 63%) but the technology is tried and tested, therefore, some would say, it’s a safer bet. AstraZeneca’s vaccine (when it enters Hong Kong) will also use a well-studied method, i.e., the viral vector.

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Read more: COVID-19 And Children In Hong Kong: Doctor Q & A

COVID-19 Vaccines In Hong Kong

Can You Get COVID-19 In Between The Two Shots?

Yes. According to data published in December 2020, the BioNTech vaccine was roughly 52% effective after the first dose. That means half the inoculated people can still get infected after the first shot and protection for the other half comes with caveats – immunity kicks in around the 12th day of the first shot. Precisely why, it’s uber important to keep your guard up at all times.

Can You Get COVID-19 After Getting The Double Doses?

Yes and no. Sinovac’s CoronaVac comes with a 50% to 65% efficacy rate whilst the BioNTech jab has a 95% efficacy rate (once both vaccines have been administered). Whatever vaccine you choose, complete immunity comes only around a week after the second shot. Before that, you’re still vulnerable. A vaccine is not a quick pass to the pre-COVID lifestyle just yet.

Even with BioNtech’s 95% efficacy, for every 100 people who roll up their sleeves, 5 will still end up with an infection. The problem might be our mentality – once we get the jabs, we quickly develop a false sense of security believing that we’re the 95% group, no one thinks they’re the unfortunate 5%.

Should You Take The Jab If You’ve Already Been Infected With COVID-19?

Yes, please! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US advises that immunity from the vaccine is far more potent and lasts longer than natural immunity acquired post an infection. A vaccine gives higher levels of antibodies, so yes, get a shot, if you can!

Is It Mandatory To Get Vaccinated?

No. Not at the moment. But if you are an anti-vaxxer or just unsure on this one then turn to science to make an informed choice. There is plenty of fake news and scaremongering, such as fears about RFID microchips in the vaccines.

While there are often alarming headlines about deaths and near-lethal side effects following the COVID-19 jabs, no evidence linking these has been found. There is also such a thing as context. More than 403,000 Hong Kongers have safely received a COVID-19 jab. To put your mind at ease, the mortality rate linked to COVID vaccines in the US is extremely low (about 0.003%).

Anecdote and evidence are not the same things. You can still hold off getting the vaccine but ultimately travel bubbles and quarantine restrictions could possibly depend on some sort of a vaccine passport.

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Read more: Expert Advice: How Will Social Distancing Affect My Child?

COVID-19 Vaccines In Hong Kong

COVID-19 Vaccines For Pregnant Or Breastfeeding Women

Should pregnant or breastfeeding women take the COVID-19 vaccines available in Hong Kong? This question is a biggie and one that’s lighting up mama chats all over Hong Kong. In short, there isn’t enough data to prove that it’s safe but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not. The answer is not straight forward and depends largely on an individual basis.

To elaborate, unfortunately, for any vaccine or drug trial, pregnant women and children are excluded from the research. It’s the norm. However, in BioNTech’s trial, 23 women became pregnant in the course of the study – too small a number to form a global safety generalisation but none of them experienced side-effects different from others.

More nuanced research is needed before a definitive guideline could be given but countries like Israel added pregnant women to the priority groups for vaccination, with its own research suggesting that getting the vaccine can actually help protect babies.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) does recommend that “COVID-19 vaccines should not be withheld from pregnant individuals,” and that the vaccines “should be offered to lactating individuals similar to non-lactating individuals.”

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) in the UK, are advising people to wait for more data, though it does suggest that women should be offered the vaccine if they are in a high-risk group. It states that while “the available data do not indicate any safety concern or harm to pregnancy, there is insufficient evidence to recommend routine use of COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy.” It goes on to say that “breastfeeding women may be offered vaccination with the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines.”

The Hong Kong government has not entirely greenlighted the shot for pregnant and breastfeeding women either, it says:

“COVID-19 vaccines are not routinely recommended during pregnancy, unless the woman is considered at very high risk of exposure and subject to very high risk of COVID-19 complications. While it is also not routinely recommended for breastfeeding women, those with high clinical need for protection against COVID-19 may be offered vaccination. If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, think you may be pregnant or are planning to have a baby, ask your doctor for advice.” 

Read the current statement from the Hong Kong College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists for the most recent information and its views.

The Centres For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expands on that getting vaccinated while pregnant or breastfeeding is a personal choice. Given the lack of data, the WHO only recommends vaccinations for high-risk pregnant women, such as health workers and those with co-morbidities, though it “does not recommend discontinuing breastfeeding after vaccination.”

Bottom line: There isn’t enough data to prove the long-standing safety or even the risk in pregnant and breastfeeding women. And so, the choice rests on the individual involved – consult your doctor and lactation consultant as well if you’d like. Numerous studies are currently underway on this group and should fill out the information gap very soon. Meanwhile, there is more information slowly filtering through on how vaccinated mothers can hopefully pass covid antibodies to babies in utero and through breastmilk

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Read more: Breastfeeding And Lactation Consultants In Hong Kong

Vaccine Side-Effects: What Do They Mean?

Severe reactions are super rare. Less than your chances of getting hit by a car, let’s say. 1% of people report nausea or an upset tummy but around a quarter have had arm soreness (cancel that kickboxing class for a day or two, mamas), headache, fatigue, fever for 24 to 48 hours and chills. Don’t schedule your annual mam in the vaccination window, few women have reported swollen lymph nodes after the jab which can look a bit awry on your scan. But hey, these minor inconveniences signal that your body is building on a solid wall of defence.

Here’s the full list of side effects for FoSun/BioNTech and Sinovac.

What About The Long-Term Health Effects Of These Vaccines?

Some anxiety surrounding these vaccines is understandable. For one, they have been developed in record time and in the case of BioNTech (and Moderna in the US), the technology itself is new. Several factors to consider that worked in favour of the current COVID-19 vaccines:

  1. Research on coronavirus vaccine did not begin in 2020, it started more than a decade ago.
  2. COVID-19 vaccines using mRNA is new but the concept has been researched in previous episodes of Zika, influenza, rabies for over three decades now. In 2017, German pharma company, CureVac came out with results of phase 1 of its rabies vaccine trial in reputed medical journal The Lancet.
  3. With the collective sense of urgency to get a vaccine and move on with our lives, the international scientific community has been studying and sharing research on virus behaviour and early trends.
  4. The US FDA and governing medical bodies in countries around the world have fast-tracked vaccine approvals (in some cases, granting use as part of emergency response).
  5. While no unusual side-effects or deaths were seen in clinical trials for any of these vaccines, manufacturers will have to continue to evaluate and monitor the situation.

As far as the mRNA vaccines go, it’s important to note that the vaccine itself cannot give you COVID-19 and the mRNA tech does not alter our DNA. While all long-term side effects aren’t known yet, evidence suggests that it is safe.

Should You Take The Vaccine If You Have A History Of Allergies Or Any Serious Health Concerns?

Discuss this at length with your doctor beforehand. The US FDA has flagged that only people with a severe allergic reaction to one of the ingredients listed in the vaccine should stay away from it.

Are you reactive to penicillin? Have serious food allergies or reactions to past immunisations, suffer from an autoimmune disorder or undergoing chemotherapy? If you have an underlying condition, your GP should guide you on the matter – not Dr Google. And if it puts your mind at rest, vaccine centres in Hong Kong are medically equipped to handle any adverse reactions, if they were to occur.

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Read more: The Best Masks For Kids And Adults When Out And About

COVID-19 Vaccines In Hong Kong

How Long Will The Vaccine Be Effective After The Current Two Doses?

Immunity offered by these vaccines is still up in the air. None of the first generation COVID-vaccines has had long-term trials so that number cannot be determined just yet. It’s a “wait and see” situation at the moment.

Can You Still Spread The Infection After Getting Vaccinated?

There is no evidence to suggest that vaccinated people will not spread the disease. If a vaccine can cut future transmission rates, then medically it’s considered to be providing “sterilising immunity”. It’s a rare occurrence, the measles vaccine is an example. And we’re crossing our fingers here because there is no data to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines will not fall in this category. Super hopeful!

At times the vagueness of it all is maddening; things will get clearer as more inoculations happen and definitive research comes to light in the coming months

How Long Will It Take For The Virus To Disappear?

Herd immunity or population immunity is when large numbers of people have antibodies and the virus gradually loses its sting. There are ways to achieve this – the catastrophic way or the inoculated way. The WHO naturally supports opting for vaccinations and not allowing the disease to spread and cause unnecessary death and grief. Vaccination drives come with caveats – as children are currently not being vaccinated, they will continue to be drivers of the infection for a while, delaying herd immunity.

In the US, President Biden, has estimated 75% of their population will be vaccinated by the end of summer 2021 and they can expect to see a sense of normalcy thereafter. There are no such estimations for Hong Kong.

When Will Things Go Back To Normal?

This is the million-dollar question! Not being pessimistic or optimistic – our normalcy depends on the collective community. The turning point is not going to be on yours or my shoulders alone – as mass vaccinations increase, there should be extreme care to not get infected in between or post jabs until the whole population becomes immune. Though we’re itching to hug our grandparents, kiss a friend, party, travel, do grocery runs without a mask; let’s not be overly optimistic about all those things before late 2021.

And a lot of this doesn’t depend on clinical research now, it depends on us. We’re counting on one another for the light at the end of the tunnel. Is this the beginning of the end? We hope so.

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Read more: Raising A Child With An Immune Deficiency During COVID-19

Featured image courtesy of Getty Images, image 1 courtesy of Hakan Nural via Unsplash, image 2 courtesy of CDC via Unsplash, image 3 courtesy of Migs Reyes via Pexels, image 4 courtesy of Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels      

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