Vaccine Skepticism May Hold Back Asian Recovery

Getting international travel and commerce back on track may hinge on vaccine acceptance.

This story first appeared on TheStreet.com on Monday, March 15, 2021

I’m due to go get my COVID-19 vaccination, the first jab, Tuesday. But I’m one of the few and the brave in Hong Kong.

There has been apathy, antipathy and resistance to vaccinations in Hong Kong, resulting in a very slow take-up. Only around 5% of the eligible population of Hong Kongers has taken advantage of the free program. According to one doctor, 40% of the people who have actually reserved their injection do not show up.

It’s understandable that there’s skepticism about a new vaccine, developed at record pace. I get it. A process that normally takes a decade took a year. It took me a day to make up my mind.

But the main detriment to the initiative in Hong Kong has been coverage of six deaths in the city of people who have taken the Chinese vaccine, Sinovac. That has dampened any enthusiasm that may have existed — and that was in shorter supply than doses anyway.

Oh, and the Sinovac vaccine should not be approved in Hong Kong, in my view. The health authorities here are not following their own rules, and have passed a special exemption to get the drug cleared for use, against protocol. Ordinarily, any drug would have to have its clinical-trial results published, and peer reviewed in medical journals. But that has not occurred.

The maker of the drug, Sinovac Biotech, has not released the data. Quite why, I don’t know, but we can all have our suspicions. The most innocent explanation is that there are no longer enough COVID-19 cases within China to make a large enough sample of patients. The Beijing-based company has struggled to conduct its own research in its home market.

But Sinovac is being used and tested in Brazil. Researchers there said in mid-January that the Sinovac vaccine was only 50.4% effective, when you include mild infections. They initially gave a 78% efficacy rate, but then admitted it does not include patients who still caught the virus but had “very mild infections.”

The World Health Organization sets a minimum standard that a vaccine must have an efficacy of at least 50% for it to qualify. The figure means that of 100 people given the vaccine, 50 are guaranteed not to get it at all, while the other 50 may or may not, and may have a milder version of the disease if they do.

Indonesia also ran trials on Sinovac, and found it to be 65.3% effective. The highest efficacy came from tests in Turkey, where researchers said it proved 91.3% effective, both nations reporting interim results from late-stage trials.

If you’re being charitable, you’ll chalk up Sinovac Biotech’s inability to publish its results to the difficulties of squaring away research from all over the world. If you’re being suspicious, you may wonder what kind of side effects and hospitalizations are contained in the figures they undoubtedly have.

One Hong Kong doctor here joked that the Hong Kong population is taking part in another phase of Sinovac’s late-stage trials, without knowing it. We chuckle, knowing there’s a grain of truth.

Hong Kongers, for a population that thrives on a famously entrepreneurial and risk-taking economy, are surprisingly risk-averse in their daily life. Widespread, mild hypochondria has stood them in good stead in the face of an unknown disease. Mask wearing and social distancing took off right away, even before “social distancing” became a thing.

It is not going to help the vaccine program. On top of that, every death or hospitalization of someone who has taken a COVID-19 jab gets blown up in the city’s tabloids. The first two deaths, the authorities said on investigation, were coincidence. “Natural” heart attacks are gonna happen if you inject a lot of people, just like some will die in car crashes. Now we have six coincidences …

There’s a political angle to the vaccines, undoubtedly. We have two vaccines available, the Chinese one with insufficient data and a Western one with data supplied.

Hong Kong did not start administering any vaccines until it was able to give out a Chinese-made one, rushing through Sinovac with incomplete and non-public testing data. Only then could the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that the city had reserved be flown in. Another standard for the Hong Kong drug authorities is that the drug be approved elsewhere in reputable markets, and the Pfizer drug had been given the seal of approval in Britain and the United States.

Here in Hong Kong it is not the “Pfizer drug.” The name Pfizer (PFE) is nowhere to be found. This is the BioNTech/Fosun drug, which has the made-up drug name of Comirnaty, as you can see from the Hong Kong booking form. A subsidiary of the conglomerate Fosun International (FOSUF) gets involved. And yes, Comirnaty is the exact same one that Pfizer makes.

BioNTech is the brains behind Comirnaty, the first mRNA vaccine ever to get approved anywhere in the world, when Britain gave it the all-clear. Pfizer was pulled in to help commercialize and mass produce the drug. It contains a molecule of a type called messenger RNA that carries instructions to make a protein that can bind with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Unlike a conventional vaccine, the kind we have all taken for polio or smallpox, it does not contain any of the virus itself, which is present in “old-fashioned vaccines,” in a weakened or denatured state.

Pretty smart, huh? I think of it like a Trojan Horse of a drug. That’s not quite right, it’s sending your body a message to generate body doubles so that when the virus arrives, it gets confused, and attacks the dummy instead.

Why has Pfizer been erased? All pharmaceuticals companies have to have a Chinese joint venture to sell drugs in China. That’s where Fosun Pharma, the largest drugmaker in China, comes in.

I was worried this partnership would mean the drug will be made in China. But BioNTech will be making the drug in Europe, at production bases in Germany and Belgium, with Fosun acting as distributor as well as conducting the regulatory applications and marketing in China.

Pfizer is BioNTech’s global partner — except in China. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose every uttering seems politically calibrated to please Beijing, says Pfizer is a “co-supplier” alongside Fosun Pharma.

Fortunately, it’s the same drug, and that’s the one I’ll be getting. I would in no circumstances whatsoever get the Sinovac drug that has been approved when it shouldn’t have been approved, in my view. The Pfizer drug has peer-reviewed data showing it’s 95% effective, as per the E.U. product factsheet.

For Sinovac, Hong Kong health authorities say they’ve seen some but not all of the numbers. Yet again, they have also not released them to the public, or said which numbers they’ve seen. On top of that, Hong Kong health authorities are giving the Sinovac drug to all ages, from 18 and up. Even in mainland China, it is not given to people over 60.

Numbers out of China are often, well, just numbers. One friend of mine who runs a business says most Chinese companies have two sets of books, one with financials they show to the public or partners, and another that give the real picture. He insists his company does not!

We have an added layer of politics involved. China is keen to build a medical database and has used a “voluntary” program to collect biometrics including DNA and facial-recognition scans from the Uighur population in Xinjiang. This “health check” info can and will be used by the Communist authorities. Folks mistrust the Hong Kong government badly enough to expect them to do the same.

Then of course the entire world has to contend with anti-vaccer misinformation. Much of that stems from a completely discredited piece of research indicating that there’s a link between the measles/mumps/rubella shot and autism.

THIS IS NOT TRUE, people! The concept was based on a discredited piece of research unfortunately published in the esteemed medical journal The Lancet, in 1998. The journal retracted it partially in 2004 and completely in 2010.

The damage, however, was done, or at least the info was out there on the Internet. An article in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy, another peer-reviewed journal, calls the alleged autism-vaccine connection “perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”

I’m no scientist, but I trust that the medical establishment has been working double and triple time on COVID-19. A 95% efficacy on the Pfizer/BioNTech shot hasn’t been shot down. And with just about all the vaccines, “efficacy” in medical terms of granting complete immunity is different from “efficacy” in real-life terms. It is rare for people given any COVID-19 vaccine to get hospitalized.

I’ve noticed that expatriates in Hong Kong appear more willing to get vaccinated. This may be because they’re keen to travel. China’s very slow take-up on vaccinations is likely to hamper efforts to deploy its newly introduced “vaccine passport,” which also raises a lot of concerns over health-record privacy and sharing that information between governments.

In the United States, a commendable 32 doses per 100 people has been administered (not quite 32% vaccination because some people might have had a second shot). In China, the figure is 3.8 doses per 100 people.

It’s a very personal decision whether to get the shot or not. I understand, I’ll reiterate, if people hesitate about adopting this new technology. I don’t buy the first generation of a new phone or computer, and when I once did, it broke quicker than I expected.

Tuesday, I’ll try the new technology. I put my faith that the medical community has been working double, triple, quadruple time to get this right. Any company that produces a faulty vaccine would be destined for the scrapheap.

The medical community has been fooled before, yes. See MMR-autism, above. I’ll set this skepticism aside. I have kids, I meet a lot of people that I don’t want to infect. It’s the right thing, I feel, to do. One small shot for my arm, a giant leap of faith for mankind.

Chinese Investors Doubt Trump’s Talk Over Virus ‘Proof’

It seems Chinese investors have called President Trump’s bluff.

Markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen resumed trade on Wednesday with early losses, after a five-day long weekend. That was the first time for investors to respond to renewed hostilities that again threaten China-U.S. trade.

But Chinese shares ended the day with modest gains. The CSI 300 blue-chip index rose 0.6%. Chinese punters are paying more attention to the likelihood of Chinese stimulus. The Communist Party is keen to keep its citizens happy ahead of its major political meeting now due to start on May 22. The central People’s Bank of China also appeased U.S. hawks by setting the Chinese yuan at a neutral rate, at 7.07 to the U.S. dollar.

At this stage, Trump’s attacks amount to hot air. In Chinese, we call it “blowing water,” or chit chat, idle talk.

Trump last Thursday threatened China with new tariffs. This week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin warned of “very significant consequences” if China doesn’t follow through on commitments to buy U.S. goods made in its “Phase 1” trade deal with the U.S. Those are worrying sounds here in Hong Kong, bashed last year by trade war winds.

On Tuesday, Trump said the U.S. is ready to dish the dirt about how a Chinese lab mishap led to Covid-19 cursing the world. He earlier told a reporter he has seen evidence that gives him a high degree of confidence that the virus originated from a Wuhan lab. But when asked what the evidence is, he said “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

Trump now says the U.S. will issue a full report on the origins of the virus. “We will be reporting very definitively over a period of time,” Trump said on Tuesday.

Trump has yet to prove that he is not propagating yet another conspiracy theory when he claims that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s first biosafety level 4 lab. Numerous scientists have stepped forward to say the DNA indicates the virus is of natural origin, not man-made.

There are plenty of people here in Hong Kong who believe the lab theory too, without a shred of evidence. I’m sorry, but when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he has “enormous evidence” that Chinese lab technicians messed up, show us the proof. Otherwise keep quiet until you are ready to do so. It’s not just hot water, it’s irresponsibly vague.

For the rest of this story, check out Real Money on TheStreet.com.

China Posts Worst Economic Performance on Record

Monday’s numbers for production, retail sales and the jobless rate are all the worst on record for China. Asian shares continued heavy selling despite central-bank support. [This story first appeared on TheStreet.com.]

China has posted its worst production and sales figures on record on Monday, as a series of firsts continue to be set in Asia, almost all of them on the downside.

The economic numbers released on Monday are far worse than predicted by forecasters, indicating that China’s factories essentially shut up shop in the first two months of the year. Retailers stopped buying, too, e-commerce not able to offset the empty stores nationwide.

Industrial output fell 13.5% for the January-February period, from the prior year. That’s the worst reading on record since Reuters began tracking the figure in January 1990. A poll by the news agency had anticipated a 1.5% rise.

Retail sales plummeted 20.5%, also the first decline on record, despite an increase in online purchases of goods like groceries. Shopping malls and high streets have become ghost towns, and a logistics logjam due to a lack of delivery people has delayed e-commerce orders. A survey of economists by Bloomberg had anticipated only a 4.0% fall.

China’s unemployment rate has risen to 6.2% for February, up from 5.2% in December. That, too, is a record high jobless rate since the government started publishing figures.

Investment also sank 24.5% for the January-February period, the first drop in record, and far worse than the dip of 2.0% forecast by economists. (Combining the two months negates the impact of Lunar New Year, which fell in January in 2020 but February in 2019.) Investment into property, the holding of choice for wealthy Chinese citizens, shrank by its largest amount on record, and home prices stalled for the first time in five years.

Early predictions of the impact of the coronavirus suggested there would be a rapid V-shaped recovery in China. But the location of the virus outbreak in the “Chicago of China” rapidly impacted travel and trade. The epicenter, Wuhan, is a major inland port on the Yangtze River, as well as a north-south and east-west node on railway lines. It is the center of China’s auto manufacturing.

Economic figures for March may be even worse than those recorded for the first two months of the year. Consumer confidence has been shaken to its core, and it’s unclear what will encourage it to return.

Official figures claim that China registered only 16 new cases of the coronavirus on Sunday, and 12 of those stem from “imported” cases of people arriving from abroad. But with the country opening back up to human movement, there’s potential for a second outbreak. One Hong Kong news report out of Wuhan states that doctors there are releasing patients from temporary hospitals if a lung scan shows no scarring, without testing for the virus, since test kits have run low.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, which centered on southern Guangdong Province as well as Hong Kong, China did not enter any significant lockdown. With the Covid-19 disease, the top leadership effectively ordered half the country’s 1.4 billion people to stay home. That has complicated the return of workers from the Lunar New Year, and only around 75% of Chinese companies are back in business.

The cessation of production is far more extreme than in 2003, hence the huge and unprecedented impact on industrial production. This has broad implications in the West. Even if demand returns around the world, that is no good if there is no supply of goods.

China’s efforts to get its economy firing on all cylinders are now going to be deterred by a lack of demand, too. The travel bans put in place around the world, and a rising number of lockdowns in major economies such as Italy and Spain, will only further dampen economic activity in Asia.

China’s top leaders were due to announce their “forecast” for full-year economic performance in 2020 at a meeting on March 5. But the event has been postponed due to the virus crisis. The Communist top brass had reportedly agreed a “target” of around 6% when they gathered late last year, and are now debating whether to lower that.

Hong Kong’s economy is also suffering through what amounts to a virtual shutdown. Figures released on Monday showed that there were only 199,000 tourist arrivals in February. That is normally the same number of tourists who arrive in a single day, equating to a 96% decrease. Even at the height of SARS, which centered on the city, 427,000 visitors arrived in the month of May.

The lessons learnt during SARS have however led to far fewer cases of Covid-19 occurring (so far) here in my hometown. Although Hong Kong is next to mainland China, it has only recorded 148 cases, far fewer even than Singapore, at 226, despite Hong Kong having a population that is 32% larger. Social distancing and staying at home, as well as a rapid response to track relatives and friends of those infected, seems to be working.

Asian markets continued their panic selling on Monday, despite moves by the U.S. Federal Reserve to slash interest rates, and an emergency meeting by the central Bank of Japan. New Zealand and South Korea also cut interest rates.

Australian stocks have crashed 9.7% on Monday, their biggest fall since “Black Monday” in 1987. That comes after an extraordinary day’s trade on Friday, which saw the S&P/ASX 200 fall 8.1% at the start, only to close with their strongest one-day gain in more than a decade, of 4.4%. Financial stocks led the selling on Monday, and investors will also have been unnerved by those historically bad activity numbers out of China, the largest source of demand for Australian exports.

Japan’s Topix declined 2.0%, despite BOJ action. The Japanese central bank moved up a policy meeting by two days, and agreed to purchase bonds and other financial instruments, as well as expand corporate finance.

Chinese shares fell 4.3% on Monday after the economic-output figures, and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong dropped 4.0%. Singapore’s Straits Times index lost 5.3%. Indian shares were the biggest fallers outside Australia, the Sensex down 7.9%.

The View From Asia: Trump-Xi Deal Is Just a Temporary Truce

The View From Asia: Trump-Xi Deal Is Just a Temporary Truce

This story originally appeared on TheStreet.com.

It was over Argentinian steak that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart President Donald Trump hashed out a trade truce in Buenos Aires over the weekend. But it is Chinese factory owners who will be most relieved.

Xi and Trump agreed for a ceasefire in their increasingly fraught war, meaning U.S. tariffs will not raise from 10% to 25% on Jan. 1, as planned, with further talks to hash out future trade to come.

Here in Asia, we are well aware that this is only a temporary truce. Hostilities have only been suspended for 90 days. Trump continues to play both roles in the good cop/bad cop routine with Xi, sweet talking Xi in person. That kind of “face” goes down very well in China, where both the government and the people at large are desperate for recognition on the world stage.

No doubt, the agreement has eased immediate fears, which were undoubtedly unsettling investors in Asia. Emerging markets in particular have been paying a heavy price, more so as investors try to reduce risk than because of any direct effects from the trade war.

I’m writing this from Jakarta, and the Indonesian rupiah has been shaken like a palm-oil plant in a typhoon by potential disruptions to economic growth in the region, as well as U.S. interest rates rising. Earlier this year, the rupiah sank to levels last seen during the Asian financial crisis 20 years ago.

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Trump Takes on China in Trade, but Is Wrong With His Attack

Trump Takes on China in Trade, but Is Wrong With His Attack

U.S. President Donald Trump stood side by side with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, despite the fact that Trump continues to depict — wrongly — the China-U.S. trade relationship as toe-to-toe.

That relationship is “one-sided and unfair,” Trump said in a joint address in Beijing. There’s the “shockingly high” trade deficit to consider, he explained. There’s also the $300 billion in the theft of U.S. intellectual property and forced technology transfer that the United States suffers every year, per U.S. government figures.

Trump has, to be fair, delivered on this, the most-important trip of his presidency. He has conveyed more precisely in person his message that the United States is disadvantaged by its trade with China and Japan. He’s wrong, but he’s right to express himself so clearly when he previously fudged the point when meeting the leaders of those countries on home soil.

At least he won applause from the assembled Chinese and U.S. executives in attendance to hear the two leaders speak. It was for a back-handed compliment.

“I don’t blame China,” Trump conceded, pausing when clapping began. “Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.” Cue more applause.

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China’s New Leaders Are No Threat to President Xi

China’s New Leaders Are No Threat to President Xi

China’s new roster of top leaders have shuffled into their places on the red carpet for their curtain call, the procession leaving no question as to who is in charge. President Xi Jinping has been reappointed to head the Communist Party, with no one waiting in the wings as his nominated heir.

What’s more, not one of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s cabinet, is under the age of 60, meaning none of them is likely to succeed Xi when and if he stands down at the end of his second term in 2022.

It’s a highly unusual move, unprecedented in recent years, leaving Xi to continue his push for reform and fight against corruption unquestioned. Critics worry that Xi’s “rule” has evolved into a dictatorship, the president eliminating rivals who question his positions and squelching stories about his family’s amassed wealth.

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