Hong Kong’s roll-out of the Covid-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be suspended “until further notice” as it awaits the outcome of an investigation by its manufacturers and distributors into faulty packaging of one batch of doses, city health officials said on Wednesday.

Director of Health Dr Constance Chan said there was no safety issue: “At present there is no evidence which leads to any risk related to vaccine safety. However, as a precautionary measure, BioNTech request us to suspend the batch 210102, until the investigation is complete.” Meanwhile, Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip described the move as a “precautionary measure.”

Pfizer BioNtech vaccine
Photo: Marco Verch via Flickr.

The government abruptly suspended the city’s 21 community centres administering the vaccine city-wide on Wednesday morning following a notification from Chinese distributor Fosun Pharma of defective lids and leakage in one batch of doses. The suspension was enforced after some members of the public already received vaccinations from the affected batch.

Hong Kong has received two shipments of the German-manufactured vaccine totalling around 1.3 million doses since late February. BioNTech had requested that the government suspend all doses until its investigation is complete, Chan said.

Nip said that people who had registered for a dose of BioNTech had been notified via SMS of the development: “We apologise for any inconvenience caused, but we have done all we can to minimise the inconvenience caused,” the secretary said, adding that authorities had a “very limited time” to act before the centres opened for operation at 8am.

vaccine booking vaccination bioNtech suspension kwun tong hiu kwong street
A suspension notice seen at the BioNTech vaccination centre at Hiu Kwong Street Sports Centre in Kwun Tong. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Chan said the government had a “robust” system to monitor the vaccination programmes, which flagged the defects to the city’s health authorities, who then – in turn – informed the vaccine manufacturers.

The Director of Health said there had been 57 reports of defective packaging since vaccinations began earlier this month, including eight containers with cracks, 22 cases of leakage from pressure, 16 cases of loose caps and 11 of stains or marks found on the packaging.

She added that the transport requirements of the vaccine — which requires that the product is kept frozen at minus 70 degrees Celsius — means the vaccine cannot be vetted for defects before being delivered to the community centres. Vaccines will be “checked very carefully” by frontline medical staff, who will dispose of doses that are suspected to be defective, the director added.

Around 400,000 people have received the first dose of the vaccine since the drive began.

Director of Health Constance Chan
Director of Health Constance Chan getting a vaccine. Photo: gov.hk.

The director called on people who have received their first BioNTech dose to await further announcements from the government on arrangements for the second dose, which is recommended to be administered 21 days after the first jab.

She warned against switching to Sinovac for the second dose: “We do not recommend people to receive a second dose of a different brand.”

The China-developed Sinovac vaccine remains available at eight community vaccination centres, 18 general out-patient clinics and participating general practitioners across the city.

Hong Kong reported 10 new infections on Wednesday, six of which were imported. Five imported cases were from India. The city has recorded a total of 11,420 infections and 204 deaths.

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