Hong Kong's safety concerns behind dropping AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccines, new book says

In 2020, British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca was among the first three firms with which the Hong Kong government signed a purchase agreement for COVID-19 vaccines.

In addition to the 7.5 million doses officials ordered from AstraZeneca, another 7.5 million were purchased from mainland Chinese firm Sinovac, and the same number from Fosun Pharma, which delivered the German-made BioNTech doses.

The UN has revealed in its book that the government's advisory experts had opposed the AstraZeneca vaccine because of its adverse effects.

Apart from the side effect of transverse myelitis, inflammation of a part of the spinal cord, there were also reports of clots in the veins abroad in the third phase trials of the vaccine.

“The government ultimately decided not to use AstraZeneca because of safety concerns raised by reports of deaths in young people due to thrombosis, or clots in veins in the brain and organs,” the UN wrote.

Although the UN acknowledged that the complication was rare and that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risk of COVID-19, it and other experts still maintained their stance against the use of the vaccine.

In October 2021, nearly eight months after the city's COVID-19 vaccination program began, the government announced it was donating 7.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the COVAX Facility, an international initiative backed by the United Nations to distribute vaccines to developing countries.

But the government only said the donation was due to sufficient doses from Sinovac and BioNTech, which can continue to provide the city with a steady supply of vaccines, without citing safety concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccines.

Earlier that year, health officials had said they were concerned about safety reports of the vaccine, and had asked the drugmaker to halt supplies, but they cited maintaining adequate supplies as the main reason for the donation.

“The people of Hong Kong are very fortunate to have access to surplus supplies of a variety of vaccines and the freedom to choose,” Yuen wrote.

The infectious disease specialist also described his inspection at public housing block Yat Kwai House, Kwai Chung Estate, in January 2022 as “memorable”.

It was one of 30 inspections they conducted during the pandemic at a variety of locations — such as restaurants, fitness clubs and residential buildings — where outbreaks had been reported.

Officials from the UN and Centre for Health Protection agreed that all residents of Yat Quai House should be quarantined at home after on-site testing, as more people have become infected and the virus has begun to spread.

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Yat Kwai House, Kwai Chung Estate, was one of the 30 inspection sites where outbreaks were reported in 2022. Photo: Edmund So

The day after the inspection, the government initially required residents to undergo mandatory testing only for three consecutive days, as “government agencies were not prepared to provide support and services for home quarantine”, the UN wrote.

But authorities changed course the same day and imposed a five-day lockdown, with residents to be tested daily.

On a separate note, Yuen also revealed how he had faced the “most dangerous” incident in his career in 2021 when an anonymous complaint was made against him to the Medical Council, a watchdog body that determines whether a doctor is fit to practice.

The complaint against Yuen centred on his interview with a foreign media outlet in which he was accused of being “disrespectful, unethical and unprofessional” after he allegedly said that “the Chinese government deliberately concealed the COVID-19 outbreak”.

The charge also said the UN should not use the term “crime scene” to describe the Wuhan market, which is believed to be the source of the outbreak.

A few months after the UN submitted its response to the complaint, the Council ultimately decided not to pursue the matter.

The UN had earlier said that he would speak on issues that needed to be raised, and this was reflected in his response to the Council, which is also included in the book.

“I have always believed that telling the truth will benefit society in controlling current and future disease outbreaks,” he wrote in the letter.

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