Scrap HK's AstraZeneca deal, expert urges

Top News | Jane Cheung 8 Apr 2021

Authorities should scrap a deal to buy the British-made AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine and look into newer types of shots with better protection against Covid-19 mutations, government adviser David Hui Shu-cheong said.

This came as the European Medicines Agency announced in a press conference last night that there was a possible link between AstraZeneca and blood clots.

But the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine "overall" continue to outweigh any side effects, Emer Cooke, the EMA's executive director said.

A "plausible explanation" for the rare cases of blood clotting is an immune response to the vaccine, she said.

Further recommendations will be issued in the future, and the safety and efficacy of the vaccine will continue to be monitored, the EMA said.

Hui said the AstraZeneca shot has a 70 percent general efficacy but is only 10 percent effective against a more infectious variant from South Africa.

"In that sense it's not a very desirable vaccine," he said yesterday.

Asked if he was suggesting pulling out of a deal to purchase AstraZeneca vaccine, the respiratory expert from the Chinese University of Hong Kong responded: "You could say so."

When authorities approached pharmaceutical firms for advance procurement agreements last year, Hui went on, they reached out for more options as a "decentralized investment."

As more post-inoculation information has surfaced including reports of rare blood clots together with the emergence of mutated variants, he said, the government should not rush into obtaining the vaccine.

Hui also offered an assurance that the SAR's procurement of 15 million doses of Beijing-made Sinovac and German-made BioNTech/Fosun vaccine was sufficient for the entire population.

He also clarified a statement by Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen that BioNTech jabs had "a limited supply period."

What Nip meant, Hui said, was that the vaccine could only be stored for six months after landing in Hong Kong.

As of Tuesday, 113,000 Hongkongers had received two doses of vaccine, with jabs of CoronaVac by Sinovac and Comirnaty by BioNTech. Another 502,500 people have had one dose.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said in December that authorities had secured 7.5 million doses of vaccine from three brands, with AstraZeneca being the third option.

The first AstraZeneca batch was expected to arrive in late June.

A statement from the Food and Health Bureau yesterday was that it had not received an application from AstraZeneca for emergency use registration in Hong Kong.

Another government adviser, Kenji Fukuda, a public health expert with the University of Hong Kong, said if AstraZeneca applied for emergency use in the SAR the expert panel would still have to review its clinical trial data before deciding whether to recommend it to the bureau.

"The expert panel will review independently rather than relying on [information from] other groups," he said. "We haven't entered this stage yet. It's too early to say what we should do now."

Fukuda also said if the government wanted a fourth vaccine option not only would authorities need to review its efficacy and safety but also weigh the chances of successful procurement amid a limited supply.

This flurry came after the European Medicines Agency's head of health threats and vaccine strategy Marco Cavaleri on Tuesday told an Italian newspaper there were links between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots in recipients.

That followed many countries reporting such incidents.

The World Health Organization's director for regulation and prequalification, Rogerio Pinto de Sa Gaspar, also said on Tuesday that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine were still "largely positive" and outweighed the risk of rare but serious blood clots.

"For the time being there is no evidence that the benefit risk assessment for the vaccine needs to be changed," he said.

"And we know from the data coming from countries like the United Kingdom and others that the benefits are really important in terms of reduction of the mortality of populations that are being vaccinated."

Despite that, the University of Oxford, which codeveloped the vaccine with AstraZeneca, paused a study on children receiving the jab.

That came with a British watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, investigating 30 cases of rare brain and other clots among over 18 million adults who have received at least one dose.

Seven of them died, including some with a low blood platelet level, which typically means they should be less likely to develop blood clots. But the university said no safety issues arose in the trial.

Meanwhile, the expert committee on post-inoculation adverse events last night announced two new deaths in Sinovac vaccine recipients.

This takes the toll to 15 - 13 who took the Sinovac jab and two BioNTech's.

One was a 68-year-old woman with high blood pressure, lipid disorder and poor thyroid functions, who died on March 29 - 26 days after her first jab of Sinovac.

Her cause of death was heart attack and the panel deemed it was not directly linked to the vaccine.

The other was a 62-year-old man with newly diagnosed high blood pressure who died on Friday - 25 days after having his first jab.

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