Mainland Chinese eager to get Western mRNA vaccines rather than domestic ones are flocking to Macau, where they have booked the only hospital that offers shots to tourists.
Beijing has not approved any foreign COVID-19 vaccines for its citizens to use, instead relying on cuttings from Chinese groups Sinovac and Sinopharm. Analysts said these offer a lower level of immunity than Western alternatives, which use mRNA technology.
But Beijing’s brutal U-turn on its previous zero-covid disease prevention policy this month has led to an explosion of cases and a surge in mainlanders seeking mRNA injections in Macau. The former Portuguese colony and special administrative region is the only place outside mainland China that the country’s citizens can travel to without quarantine upon return.
Vaccination slots were quickly booked as the outbreak spiraled out of control in China. In October, Ivi, a 27-year-old resident of Dongguan, across the border from mainland China, received her first dose of mRNA at the Macau University of Science and Technology Hospital, the only place that lets paying tourists inject patients.
Last week he returned to the hospital for another dose, but by the end of December the vaccines were full.
A customer service manager at a Macau hospital said her phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the outbreak began to intensify in early December. However, he also noted that there was an increase in clients canceling appointments after contracting the virus.
Analysts said China’s uneven vaccination coverage set the stage for chaos to grip its medical system as hospitals became overwhelmed with sick patients following the end of the zero-Covid policy.
About 85 million people, a third of China’s 267 million citizens over the age of 60, have not received the third dose of the vaccine, which is needed for a high level of protection against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Among people over 80, the rate is nearly 60%, or 21 million people.
Beijing has pledged to devote more resources to filling gaps in vaccination coverage. But Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said such efforts may be “too late”.
“The recovery campaign takes three to four months. At this point, this wave of the virus will peak,” he said.
The rise of “vaccine tourism” was fueled by “affluent” mainlanders with access to scientific studies comparing vaccine effectiveness, said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong who specializes in foreign policy. China and health security in Asia.
A study in the Singapore Lancet published this month found that people who received three doses of the Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccines, which are based on older technology that uses inactivated virus to elicit an immune response, compared with those who were nearly twice as likely to develop severe COVID. Three mRNA cuts were obtained. People who were given Chinese injections were also 50% more likely to be hospitalized.
Macau’s booming vaccine tourism business has increasingly given rise to middlemen charging fees to arrange travel and other logistics. Viola, a Macau-based insurance agent, told the Financial Times she charges $60 to organize vaccination sessions for her clients on the mainland.
A 27-year-old management consultant, who gave his name only as Van, and his wife paid $170 for a single dose of the mRNA vaccine after deciding not to get the shots with at-home options.
The advisory said the couple were concerned about the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines and the “lack of transparency regarding trial data”.