I rushed to get my fourth Covid-19 shot today, booking it late Monday night after mainland China announced it would ease its border restrictions on January 8. No longer will Chinese travelers returning home be forced to serve five days in a centralized quarantine followed by three days of observation at home.
What's the rush? I had my last shot in March and a brush with Covid itself in July while back in Britain. So I feel like my immunity is pretty good. But this might be my last chance to get a slot, to get that shot. We're about to be invaded by mainland visitors desperately in search of the overseas-made vaccines that they can't get back home.
Hong Kong has been blissfully free of mainland visitors throughout the pandemic. Yes, it has taken a deadly disease to achieve it, but over the last three years the Hong Kong economy has had to rebalance to be a little more realistic, focusing on the domestic market. You don't find six luxury watch-and-jewelry shops in a single block as you used to, pre-pandemic. Now those same stores are selling masks, medicine and makeup. Shopping malls that previously only had stores from Bulgari, Bottega Veneta and Burberry now at least have an appliance retailer, drug stores and a sporting-goods store or two.
The first mainland travelers to make the trip to Hong Kong will likely come from neighboring Guangdong Province. They're daytrippers. So we can soon expect a return of what Hong Kongers, my wife included, call the "locusts," ravenous purchasers of medicines, cosmetics, baby formula, nappies, a whole host of fast-moving consumer goods that they either can't get in China - or simply don't trust are the genuine article when they see them on the shelves.
That applies, above all else, to the vaccine I received today. It's my fourth shot of the BioNTech vaccine, and today I got the "bivalent" version, updated for the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of Covid. Even something as simple as this vaccine is politicized nowadays in a Hong Kong where every pore is permeated with Chinese propaganda.
My vaccine certificate indicates, correctly, that I got a dose made by BioNTech (BNTX) , one that would have come from its manufacturing bases in Germany and Belgium. But at the clinic, the authorization form I was handed as well as the vaccine brochure told me this was a vaccine "by Fosun Pharma" but made "in collaboration with the German drug manufacturer BioNTech," with an explanatory note that both Fosun-BioNTech and Pfizer-BioNTech make the medicine using the same technology.
Oh and as a footnote: "The Comirnaty vaccines supplied to Hong Kong are manufactured by BioNTech in Germany." So we got there in the end. Of course, Fosun Pharma is a mainland Chinese company, part of the massive Fosun International HK:0656 and (FOSUF) conglomerate, so it has to get top billing, although it simply has a distribution deal for the BioNTech medicine in China. It has nothing to do with making the medicine. Still, it's "by Fosun Pharma" if you're in Hong Kong.
Even that medicine has been off-limits inside mainland China. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz secured, on his visit to Beijing in November, the concession that German expats can now get the BioNTech vaccine in the mainland. But regular folk can only get mainland-made medicines, which overseas studies show are not as effective.
As with the numbers on infections and deaths in China, which are spurious and do not paint a real picture of the extent of the outbreak in China, we don't really know much about what's going on with the Chinese vaccines. They have not, presumably, been updated from the original strains of the virus, or at least the Chinese propaganda machine has not championed this point (which it surely would).
So they remain "old-fashioned" vaccines made from dead or denatured cells of Covid-19, shots that only just met the World Health Organization bar of being 50% effective when studied outside China. We have seen no peer reviewed research on their efficacy. Chinese citizens are just told that's all they can get.
The Chinese elite are stockpiling Paxlovid, the post-infection antiviral drug from Pfizer (PFE) , and giving it to business associates as a perk. Both Chinese Communist Party officials and executives have been stocking up on the drug, often at exorbitant prices, according to the Financial Times, in a story that suggests demand for the drug makes it "an embodiment of the country's health inequalities."
It also indicates how Communist officials elevate themselves above the "common people" that their party is supposed to serve. One business owner told the FT he received two boxes of Paxlovid from a friend who got the drug at a hospital department that serves senior officials, then decided to give them away. The drug is so far only available in Shanghai and Beijing, and is supposed to be retained for elderly patients with underlying conditions like cancer and kidney failure.
There's no Chinese equivalent of Paxlovid, the only foreign-made Covid medication available in China. It was first allowed for sale in March as Shanghai battled a Covid outbreak. Now officials estimate 250 million people have likely contracted Covid in the last three weeks. Faced with an outbreak of public anger, China removed most "zero-Covid "restrictions on December 7, the highly infectious Omicron variant defeating even the harshest lockdown measures.
Still, China insists on promoting Chinese traditional medicine as a treatment for Covid, something it has not been demonstrated in peer-reviewed research to counteract. The shipments of Paxlovid have been minimal, with officials insisting they don't want to disadvantage Chinese-made medicines.
Hong Kong has been giving free vaccine doses to anyone who wants them, whether or not they are residents. So while the clinic I visited today was pretty quiet at 11 a.m. on a weekday, you can expect every appointment to be fully booked once the January 8 travel restrictions fall. Hong Kong drug stores are already running perilously on paracetamol, with local buyers sending medicine to friends and relatives across the border. What little stock remains will be stripped from the shelves once the "locusts" arrive.
I guess you have to be careful what you wish for. Economies around the world have been starved for three years of Chinese tourists, who in markets such as Thailand had become the chief drivers of the travel industry. Now they are expected to return with a vengeance - and potentially bringing a fresh Covid infection to boot.
Japan, India and Taiwan have newly announced that they will require PCR tests for people arriving from China. This throws a wrench into many travel plans. Japan, for instance, will require all travelers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau to enter the country through one of four airports set up to handle the testing: Narita and Haneda in Tokyo, Kansai International Airport outside Osaka, and Chubu airport near Nagoya.
Cathay Pacific HK:0293 and (CPCAY) , Hong Kong's beleaguered flagship carrier, has been selling out its flights to Japanese cities such as Sapporo, on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido. It's peak powder season for snowhounds. But anyone who has bought that fare needs to rebook, now that they can't touch down directly on the island at all.
Cathay shares remain 24.5% lower than their close at the end of 2019. The carrier is the most-obvious casualty of the disruption to Chinese travel. But retail sales across Hong Kong have been dismal. Retail rents fell 33.2% in 2019, another 23.4% in 2020, and an added 4.3% in 2021. They end this year flat, not building back at all from those declines.
Hong Kong still requires mask wearing almost anytime you leave your front door. So, ironically, it may not benefit all that much from the return of Chinese tourists, when destinations such as Thailand offer much greater freedom. That it will be daytrippers who come calling first here in Hong Kong, while Hong Kongers travel abroad, suggests retail sales will only surge in certain segments, mainly cheap, fast-moving goods.
The end of zero-Covid in China is an undoubted positive. But the pains of the sudden outbreak of the disease across China will be felt well into 2023. We can see the end of the pandemic but have yet to push to that point. Meantime, I'm glad I got my booster before stocks run dry, and remain protected while the Covid storm blows across China.