Hong Kong may have no choice but to throw away vast amounts of COVID-19 vaccines as the vaccination rate has fallen short of government estimates, just as places from India to Taiwan are facing an acute vaccine shortage.
The Asian financial center has purchased enough doses to fully vaccinate its 7.5 million residents. But the low infection rate in the city and widespread distrust of the government have kept many from signing on to the free inoculation program.
Among the 4 million shots that have been shipped into Hong Kong, 1.05 million doses of Sinovac and 840,000 Pfizer-BioNTech shots were unused by Monday. The Pfizer shots, if not taken in the coming months, might go to waste after they expire in mid-August, the government said.
Hong Kong’s health minister Sophia Chan said the government would discuss with the drug makers on what to do with the expected excessive shots that have yet to be delivered. Options include delaying or cancelling some shipments and donating some vaccines to other countries, she said on Wednesday.
The vaccine glut in Hong Kong reflects the cruel inequality in the fight against the pandemic. While rich countries have taken earlier steps to snap up vaccine supplies for their own populations, poorer nations are still eagerly waiting for their turn.
Although major economies have pledged to contribute billions of dollars to COVAX, an initiative to distribute vaccines to less developed countries, deliveries of more than 100 million doses are now behind schedule due to limited production capacity and lack of funding, according to COVAX partner UNICEF.
“We are concerned that the deadly spike in India is a precursor to what will happen if those warnings remain unheeded,” UNICEF said in a statement this month calling for rich countries to share their excess supply.
In Hong Kong, where about 20% of the population has taken their first doses, officials are still trying to persuade people to take the vaccines, including by letting only vaccinated people go to bars and karaoke lounges.
The vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong comes in part from concerns over vaccine safety, as well as the belief that mask wearing and social distancing are substitutes for vaccination, according to researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. A general mistrust of Hong Kong’s government, led by a historically unpopular leader, has also contributed to the hesitancy.
The city’s airport authority on Thursday said it would hold a lottery to give away 50,000 flight tickets to people who have been vaccinated by September. It’s unclear where the winners can fly to. The current rules require residents to quarantine for 14 to 21 days if they enter the city from places outside China.
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