Private services offering Chinese travellers access to mRNA vaccines are attracting droves of mainlanders to Hong Kong and Macau seeking a booster shot that their government has refused to approve.
As part of its dismantling of the country’s zero-Covid policy last month, China’s government also lifted quarantine and other border restrictions. It prompted a wave of interest in overseas travel, particularly for the upcoming lunar new year holiday later this month. However, there also appears to be a large contingent chasing the mRNA bivalent vaccines.
Throughout the pandemic the Chinese government has allowed only domestically produced vaccines for its citizens, refusing to approve foreign-made jabs. Health experts and medical studies have raised concerns about the efficacy of China’s vaccines, which use an inactivated virus, compared with the mRNA vaccines available elsewhere.
The appetite for the overseas vaccine is difficult to quantify, but a rash of services offering travel packages and self-funded shots in Hong Kong and Macau have sprung up in recent weeks. Clinics in Thailand and Singapore have also reported increased interest from Chinese travellers.
The BioNTech/Pfizer mRNA vaccine is free to residents of Hong Kong and Macau. On Thursday, the Hong Kong government announced it would no longer provide free shots of any vaccine for non-residents from next week, in response to the “recent increase in demand”. Prices for privately funded shots for non-residents in Hong Kong range from about HK$1,300 to $2,000 (£136-£209).
On Chinese social media platforms, C3Hong Kong Life, a travel service for mainlanders, advertised bookings from 8 January for people to travel to Hong Kong and get the shot for HK$1,680.
It offered a full vaccination travel package providing “expert guidance, vaccine appointments, round-trip itinerary arrangements, border pickup and other services”.
The Macau University of Science and Technology has a website for people to book a vaccine shot for prices beginning at HK$1,360. All appointments – about 100 a day – are booked until mid February.
Staff at one cross-border travel agency, xBorder, said they had facilitated “a lot” of people travelling to Macau – where entry restrictions were looser than Hong Kong – in the last quarter of 2022, and were getting a lot of interest from people wanting to go to Hong Kong.
However, the staff member added that many people infected during China’s recent outbreak had to wait three months before they could get a vaccine shot. Some Chinese cities have reported infection rates of 70-90% in the last month.
One woman posted on Weibo that her father had recently had Covid, and she feared his underlying health conditions would worsen after another bout. “Although he has recovered now, he is still very afraid of his secondary infection,” she said. After seeing the availability of the bivalent vaccine in Hong Kong, she said she planned to take her whole family to get boosted.
Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Co, the China-region distributor of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, is also promoting “go to Hong Kong, get the vaccination”. In December, the company’s vaccine was registered as a pharmaceutical product, widening availability in Hong Kong, and was granted approval for provision to visitors.
Earlier this week, the Financial Times reported a Chinese state-owned bank, China Citic Bank International, was offering new mainland customers a free mRNA shot if they made a deposit of HK$4m.
Online, some Chinese people expressed support for taking the domestic vaccines, with some suspicious of foreign-made products. Others vented frustration that access to the bivalent vaccine required travel and personal expense.
“If it is produced in the mainland, why can’t it be sold in the mainland,” said one commenter.
“After 40 years of ‘reform and opening up’, mainlanders are still living in isolated islands,” said another.
A popular medical blogger on Weibo, Dr Xu Chao, last week urged people to get vaccinated, advising of the benefits of the bivalent mRNA shot.
“Obviously, the bivalent vaccine provides additional protection for people who have only been vaccinated with the monovalent vaccine in the past,” Xu wrote. “Considering that many people in China have been away from the third dose for a long time, and the risk of recent infection is high, it is extremely important to obtain real and effective protection as soon as possible.”
Additional research by Xiaoqian Zhu