Give us confidence, not confusion

Editorial | Mary Ma 8 Feb 2021

There has been much confusion since Health Secretary Sophia Chan Siu-chee dropped a condition that would have been central to Sinovac's Covid vaccine pending approval for use in Hong Kong.

The explanation - as provided by Chan and her bureau for exempting Sinovac from the significant demand for it to publish clinical trial data in a medical journal for peer review - broadly consisted of two points.

One, the situation facing Hong Kong is urgent and, two, the mainland pharmaceutical company pleaded that it was difficult for it to collate the data and publish it in a medical journal.

The explanation is less than impressive despite the Food and Health Bureau giving assurances that any vaccine approved for use in the SAR will be up to the required standards on safety, efficacy and quality.

Without doubt, the expert committee tasked to evaluate the vaccines, including Sinovac's, will do their very best to study the data available to them with a view to making the best possible judgment in the best interest of the public.

Committee members have already done so in respect of the German vaccine produced by BioNTech, of which the first shipment is planned for late February.

Hopefully, delivery will not be held up by a vaccine-supply row now brewing in Europe.

Application for the use of BioNTech was vetted by the expert committee according to the established codes, including publication of the late-stage clinical data in a medical journal.

As they approved the vaccine, they knew adherence to the established codes would enhance people's confidence in BioNTech.

For a mass vaccination program to succeed, public confidence is vital - and an established protocol is instrumental to it.

Chan will have to offer an better explanation than that given so far to justify the decision that has removed a basic requirement central to the approval codes - ie, publication in a medical journal for the scientific data to be rigorously reviewed by the academic world.

It would be misguided for critics to jump to the conclusion that the government was trying to cut corners for the sake of convenience.

However, the exemption will weaken the approval protocol - which is unwise, especially when the other vaccine has already undergone normal vetting without incident.

Sinovac pleaded that it was difficult for it to collage the crucial clinical data for publication - and it was most likely telling the truth.

But the question remains: why is it difficult for Sinovac to accomplish this while it has not been an issue for others?

Sinovac must explain this because members of the expert committee will find such information useful and relevant in their consideration.

Vaccines are all about science. There may be prejudice against mainland vaccines, but such prejudice should be ignored and only the science considered.

The health secretary's decision to exempt Sinovac from certain essential requirements was ill-conceived.

The authorities should adhere to the established codes when evaluating any vaccines for local use.

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February 2021

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