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An injection of hope amid travel impasse

Hong Kong, 11 November 2020: This pandemic-weary world could do with a shot in the arm right now and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer believes it can provide one. The American firm and German partner BioNTech this week announced their Covid-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective in trials involving some 43,000 volunteers, an impressive statistic considering the World Health Organization sets the bar for a successful jab at 50%. If American and European drug regulators allow them to proceed, Pfizer and BioNTech are expected to manufacture over 1.3 billion doses for use worldwide by the end of 2021.

But before anyone in Hong Kong becomes too excited, a note of caution. It seems our city has little chance of getting its hands on this vaccine anytime soon. University of Hong Kong infectious diseases expert Ho Pak-leung is on record as saying “chances are slim” for Hong Kong to use the Pfizer-BioNTech product within the first quarter of next year. He expects it will be first administered in the US, Germany and other European countries. This particular vaccine also comes with a downside, it has to be kept in a deep-freeze temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius, making distribution and storage complicated.

Not that Hong Kong will be short of options. It is reported more than 40 vaccines are in clinical trials around the world, with nine in the latter stages. Our city has set aside HK$10 billion to buy vaccines and is adopting a dual approach. While it can purchase directly from manufacturers, it has also joined the global Covax Facility procurement mechanism managed by the WHO, which is aimed at avoiding “vaccine nationalism”, whereby wealthy countries buy all the available doses. We trust our government is poised, cheque book in hand, for when the moment arrives.

In truth, an effective vaccine cannot come fast enough, given we are seemingly waiting for one before opening our borders, kick-starting the aviation industry and reviving the economy. Amid much ballyhoo, our government has today announced that the long-awaited travel bubble between here and Singapore will launch on 22 November, with the number of people allowed to move quarantine-free in each direction initially limited to 200 per day.

But a similar arrangement with neighbouring Guangdong Province or even Macau is as far away as ever. Before travelling to Beijing for talks with senior officials last week, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared that securing the reopening of borders with the mainland and allowing quarantine-free, cross-border travel were the “most important” issues on her agenda. She came away empty-handed.

In other matters, however, the Hong Kong and Beijing governments appear to be co-operating seamlessly, as evidenced by today’s disqualification with immediate effect of four opposition lawmakers. Within minutes of a lunchtime announcement that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee had given our government powers to remove filibustering politicians without having to go through the courts, Ms Lam and Co did just that. The pro-democracy quartet, it should be remembered, were earlier banned from running in the Legislative Council elections before the polls were postponed until September next year. For the record, I am dismayed by today’s development, which I consider wholly unnecessary.

This hot-off-the-press news has also taken the spotlight off what looks to be a worrying rise in new coronavirus cases here. Hong Kong recorded nine new Covid-19 cases yesterday, taking its total to 5,389 with 108 related fatalities, but we are told to expect some 20 new infections today, a significant increase compared with recent figures.

Existing social distancing regulations – including mandatory mask wearing in public places except when exercising – will remain intact for at least another week. As I have observed before, these rules appear to be made up as we go along. In response to a client’s query this week, I’ve advised him he doesn’t have to wear a mask in a private car, but must do so on his motorcycle, even with helmet and face visor, since the Food and Health Bureau deems him to be situated simultaneously “within and outside the motorcycle” when riding, which puts him in a public place. However, if he switches to his bicycle, he can lose the mask, since it could be classed as exercise, although this exemption probably does not to apply our city’s countless bicycle-riding couriers since they are considered to be working.

Such absurdities can leave our citizens almost as confused as the incumbent president of the United States, who appears convinced he won last week’s election when all tangible evidence suggests otherwise. Once reality sinks in, perhaps he will heed sound advice and, like our delivery cyclists, get on his bike.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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