Hong Kong will lower the age threshold for the China-made Covid-19 vaccine Sinovac from 12 to five, and pupils will be able to receive jabs at schools when they return from the Lunar New Year holidays, the city’s leader Carrie Lam announced on Tuesday.

covid-19 coronavirus vaccine
Sinovac vaccines. Photo: Alexander Zhadan, via Flickr.

At her weekly meeting with the press, the chief executive said that because Sinovac had already been approved for children as young as three by an expert advisory panel, “from a policy perspective, we will expand the vaccination scope to children between five and 11 years old. They will be receiving the Sinovac jab.”

Lam said the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) had previously decided with two expert panels to prioritise vaccinations for 12 to 17 year olds. As for the newly announced threshold, she said “details will be passed to the CHP and scientific committee for further discussion.”

According to Lam, the government plans to send outsourced medical teams to schools to vaccinate pupils once in-person classes resume after the Lunar New Year holidays in early February. It is not yet clear if the jab will be mandatory.

“We don’t want parents to take their kids to vaccination centres by themselves, which requires them to go through the process of making reservations and waiting next to other people [at the centres],” she added.

Coronavirus Covid-19 vaccine student
A student receives a Covid-19 vaccine in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

During the same press conference, Lam also announced that all face-to-face classes in playgroups, kindergartens and primary schools would be suspended by Friday until after the Lunar New Year break.

Lam said Hongkongers’ willingness to receive Covid-19 jabs had increased since the government announced that it would bar unvaccinated people from restaurants, schools, and other premises from next month, coupled with the outbreak of the Omicron variant in the city.

She said there was an “obvious increase” in the number of citizens receiving their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, stating that 74.7 per cent of the eligible population had received their first jab as of Monday.

Expert wants BioNTech for children

Meanwhile, a pharmacy professional body recommended that children as young as five should be offered a reduced dose of the German-made BioNTech shot.

Coronavirus Covid-19 BioNTech vaccine
A vaccination centre offering BioNTech jabs. File Photo: GovHK.

The chairperson of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong (SHPHK), William Chui, told RTHK on Monday that a UK study showed it is safe and effective to give children one-third of the adult dose of the BioNTech vaccine.

Chui said the SHPHK suggested that the government should “not only consider the Sinovac vaccine” because “the BioNTech vaccine can produce a high level of neutralising antibodies.”

He said parents might take the higher efficacy of the other vaccine available in Hong Kong into consideration.

Speaking to RTHK on Tuesday, Chui said that children aged between five and 11 could be given two decreased doses of the BioNTech jab with an eight-week time interval, instead of the 21-day gap recommended for adults.

Coronavirus Covid-19 vaccine
A young person receiving Covid-19 vaccination. File Photo: GovHK.

Chui said that approach would offer adequate protection against the coronavirus while lowering the risk of myocarditis, a rare side-effect of the BioNTech vaccine, in younger people.

According to a University of Hong Kong study last month, BioNTech fared slightly better in protecting against Omicron, with five out of 25 vaccine recipients producing enough antibodies to block the variant. But none of the recipients who received Sinovac produced sufficient antibodies against Omicron.

Invisible Omicron transmission chains

The CHP warned that there could be undetected local transmissions of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant in Tuen Mun.

During Tuesday’s Covid-19 briefing, head of the CHP Chuang Shuk-kwan said that a security guard working at Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre who lives in Tuen Mun had tested preliminary positive.

Chuang Shuk-kwan
Chuang Shuk-kwan. File Photo: Inmediahk.net, via CC 2.0.

Additionally, a family of four who also lives in the district were all found to be infected. Chuang said a Cathay Pacific flight attendant infected with the Omicron variant had visited the pharmacy where the father of that family works on December 27.

The Cathay employee was the source of infection in the Moon Palace restaurant cluster, which led to the infection of at least eight diners and quarantine for more than 340 people.

As multiple patients who lived or worked in Tuen Mun had been identified, and health authorities were relatively late to detect the security guard’s case, Chuang said they suspected that invisible transmissions were already occurring in the district.

The government will roll out eight community and mobile testing centres to provide services for residents and people who work in the area.

Penny's Bay Covid-19 quarantine centre on Lantau
Penny’s Bay Covid-19 quarantine centre on Lantau. File photo: GovHK.

On Wednesday, there were 21 newly confirmed Covid-19 cases in the city, all but one of which were suspected to be Omicron infections, while eight were locally transmitted.

In total, the city has reported 12,980 infections and 213 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

In order to improve health authorities’ contact-tracing capabilities, 15 lawmakers signed a petition on Wednesday urging Lam to introduce real-name registration, location tracking, and automatic visit record-logging to “LeaveHomeSafe,” Hong Kong’s official contact-tracing mobile app.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.