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COVID vaccines

Hong Kong halts BioNTech shots over packaging defects

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Hong Kong and Macao will suspend BioNTech vaccinations due to packaging defects in a single batch.   © Reuters

HONG KONG (Reuters) -- Hong Kong authorities halted the use of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Germany's BioNTech on Wednesday, citing defective packaging, in a move that triggered scenes of confusion in inoculation centres across the city.

The suspension comes as the Asian financial hub has faced a sluggish take-up of vaccines due to dwindling confidence in China's Sinovac vaccine and fears of adverse reactions.

Inoculation centre staff turned away people booked to take the BioNTech vaccine, with many Hong Kong-ers unsure as to the reason and asking for explanations. Adding to the confusion, local media reports said one doctor was reprimanded for promoting the BioNTech vaccine over Sinovac's.

"As a precautionary measure BioNTech requested the suspension" for its vaccines in Hong Kong until an investigation is complete, the city's Director of Health, Constance Chan, told a news conference.

The city started vaccinating residents with doses from Sinovac in February and began offering the one developed by BioNTech, in March.

The BioNTech vaccine is distributed in Hong Kong and Macau via a partnership with China's Fosun Pharma, while BioNTech partners with Pfizer in markets outside greater China.

The BioNTech vaccine has shown greater take-up since its launch. Over the past week, more than double the number of people have booked the BioNTech shot compared to Sinovac, according to government figures.

Chan said the government had initially contacted Fosun Industrial (Hong Kong), the distributor, after it found some cases of cracks in vaccine containers and stains on some bottles.

She said Fosun replied on Wednesday morning stating that it needed to further investigate and would suspend vaccination until further notice.

"BioNTech and Fosun have not found any reason to believe that product safety is at risk," she said.

Fosun's parent company, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, said in a filing on Wednesday it was investigating with BioNTech.

BioNTech said in a statement that no other batches to other regions were affected and it was investigating the root cause.

Macau said on Wednesday it was also suspending the BioNTech vaccine due to the packaging flaw.

Officials said Sinovac vaccinations would continue to take place as scheduled.

In a separate incident, Hong Kong's government said it shut a private clinic that administered COVID-19 vaccines after a physician, named Dr Lau, "violated an agreement" under the city's inoculation programme.

Broadcaster RTHK reported that Lau recommended people take the BioNTech shot, rather than Sinovac's, due to its better international reputation.

Lau did not immediately respond to requests for comment. His clinic had been providing Sinovac vaccines and not the BioNTech ones, which are only available at larger public sector facilities.

Distrust of the mainland has intensified among residents in recent years with months of anti-government and anti-China protests driven by a perception that Beijing is pushing the semi-autonomous city onto a more authoritarian path.

Media reports of several deaths after vaccinations have also kept some people jittery even though the government has said there was no direct link.

With low levels of infection in the city, many people are opting to wait and see before getting a shot.

Only about 5% of Hong Kong's 7.5 million residents have been vaccinated, and more than one third of them received the BioNTech shot.

For one 67-year-old resident, who gave his surname as Lau, there was no question as to which vaccine he was going for on Tuesday - the BioNTech one.

"It has better data, there are more people getting it internationally," he said. "The other one, the data is not clear."

City leader Carrie Lam has repeated called for people to get vaccinated.

"When many places all over the world are scrambling for vaccines, we have a pretty assured supply," she said on Tuesday.

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