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COVID-19 Vaccines: A guide for employers in Hong Kong

The announcement of three types of COVID-19 vaccines for Hong Kong’s residents creates hope of the situation returning to business-as-usual for employers across the SAR. Recent news from Bloomberg indicates it could be as soon as early March 2021, once the first batch of vaccines from the German firm BioNTech SE arrives around the end of February 2021.

Until then, employers will certainly have many questions and concerns on what this means for their workforce in practice, as well as several considerations that employers across all industries in Hong Kong will have to take into account for their employees.

This guide by Pacific Prime Hong Kong provides an overview of the 3 confirmed vaccines and looks at the considerations that employers are encouraged to review and add to their workplace guidelines when vaccination officially happens.

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About the COVID-19 vaccines

As Hong Kong and the entire world are in the midst of a SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, deploying safe and effective vaccines is considered the best step towards saving as many lives as possible and creating herd immunity among the population, as well as limiting the pathways in which the virus has to spread.

Hong Kong has been largely successful in tracking the pandemic, as well as providing critical interventions and distributing vital medical supplies to combat the spread of the COVID-19. And soon in early 2021, the SAR will have 3 vaccines to offer to its population, which will hopefully improve the situation for people and businesses moving forward.

The three types of vaccines confirmed for Hong Kong

The government intends to provide the public with the following 3 COVID-19 vaccines:

1. CoronaVac

This vaccine is based on an inactivated (neutralized) virus and manufactured by Sinovac Biotech (Hong Kong) Limited.

How does CoronaVac work?

The CoronaVac vaccine works by teaching the immune system to make antibodies against COVID-19. These antibodies attach to the viral proteins, such as the spike proteins on the surface of COVID-19. If the vaccinated person gets infected with COVID-19, the body’s immune system will instantly recognize it and seek to destroy the foreign body.

How is CoronaVac administered?

The CoronaVac vaccine is given as an injection and is currently packaged as a half milliliter (0.5 mL) dose. Two doses are administered 14 days apart to give the immune system sufficient time to recognize the inactivated virus and induce immunity.

What are the possible side effects of the CoronaVac vaccine?

According to MedShadow, the possible side effects of the CoronaVac vaccine include pain at the site of injection, fever, and fatigue, which are common symptoms after receiving a vaccine.

(Take note: A serious side effect might be something like an allergic reaction. Speak with your health professional about any serious allergies or other health conditions you may have before you receive this vaccine. The information provided for this vaccine in this guide is subject to change as new studies are released. Pacific Prime Hong Kong will continually update as further details are released)

2. Tozinameran

This vaccine is based on the mRNA of the virus and manufactured by Fosun Pharma in collaboration with the German drug manufacturer BioNTech for Hong Kong.

How does Tozinameran work?

It works by teaching the cells in the body to make a protein that will trigger an immune response without using the live virus that causes COVID-19. Once an immune response is triggered, the body makes antibodies that help fight the infection if the real virus does enter the body.

How is Tozinameran administered?

The Tozinameran vaccine is given by injection (0.3 mL) into the muscle of the arm (normally the deltoid muscle). For the vaccine to work best, 2 doses are needed: a single dose and then a second dose 21 days later to boost the immune system.

What are the possible side effects of the Tozinameran vaccine?

As with all vaccines created to combat viral infections, the side effects include:

  • Pain at the site of injection
  • Body chills
  • Feeling tired
  • Mild fever

(Take note: A serious side effect might be something like an allergic reaction. Speak with your health professional about any serious allergies or other health conditions you may have before you receive this vaccine. The information provided for this vaccine in this guide is subject to change as new studies are released. Pacific Prime Hong Kong will continually update as further details are released.)

3. The ChAdOx1 nCoV-19

The Oxford vaccine is based on a non-replicating viral vector and is manufactured by AstraZeneca, in collaboration with the University of Oxford. According to the BBC, the vaccine by AstraZeneca is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus (known as an adenovirus) from chimpanzees. It has been modified to look more like coronavirus, but can’t cause illness.

How does the vaccine work?

The Oxford vaccine works by teaching the body’s immune system to react to the spike protein attached to the harmless virus. In turn, the body produces antibodies and activates specialized white blood cells known as T-cells to destroy cells with the spike protein. If the inoculated person comes into contact with the real virus, the body will be swift to react in destroying the real virus.

How is the Oxford vaccine administered?

The Oxford vaccine by AstraZeneca course consists of two separate doses of 0.5 ml each and are administered as an injection to the arm. The second dose is expected to be administered between 4 and 12 weeks after the first dose to boost the body’s immune system.

What are the possible side effects of the Oxford vaccine?

Taking the vaccine is likely to produce some of the common symptoms including:

  • Tenderness, pain, warmth, redness, itching, swelling, or bruising where the injection is given
  • Feeling tired (fatigue)
  • Chills or feeling feverish
  • Headache
  • Feeling sick (nausea)
  • Joint pain or muscle ache

Other less common but still possible side effects include:

  • Feeling dizzy or giddy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Excessive sweating, itchy skin, or rash

(Take note: A serious side effect might be something like an allergic reaction. Speak with your health professional about any serious allergies or other health conditions you may have before you receive this vaccine. The information provided for this vaccine in this guide is subject to change as new studies are released. Pacific Prime Hong Kong will continually update as further details are released.)

Key considerations for employers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s experience of the SARs epidemic in 2003 means employers will be more familiar with guidelines to implement for their employees. However, COVID-19 is beyond anything employers or anyone for that matter has seen.

While most employers in Hong Kong will not impose any mandatory vaccination policy for their employees (as it is not a legal requirement), some employers across a range of industries may be considering the possibility of enforcing mandatory vaccinations among employees and determining how to coordinate with employees who choose to opt-out of being vaccinated.

With an absence of up-to-date guidelines on vaccination at the workplace from the government and health authorities, employers in Hong Kong will be forced to look to existing frameworks and past legal decisions that are in place for vaccinations like the common flu. At least they can prepare and adapt once government and healthcare guidelines have been officially made.

Here are the main considerations that employers will have to take into account when tasked with safeguarding their workforce:

Employees and future talent with medical conditions and/or disabilities

Hong Kong is well known for its standards for equal opportunities at work. In the SAR, employees are duly protected from disability discrimination, under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance. This also includes employees with certain medical conditions including mental health conditions.

Employees with ongoing health issues, whether known or unknown, may have reason to be concerned about the effect of the vaccine. For those with disabilities, being rejected for not having the vaccine based on the grounds of medical concerns for their health, could sue and claim against the employer.

As this is a risk to a business’s reputation and bottom line, employers are encouraged to consider whether there are other solutions to protecting employees and avoid such risks.

Employees and future talent with different belief systems

For many decades, Hong Kong has been home to many expats, foreigners, and those from all walks of life that call the city-state their permanent home. This means many will have varying religious beliefs and views that may prohibit vaccination, but also prohibit the vaccine as it contains animal products.

While there are no anti-discrimination laws in Hong Kong targeting discrimination of religious beliefs, employers may still want to consider whether they should accommodate different belief systems when determining how to apply any policy on vaccinations. In general, it may be up to the employees to make the choice and for employers to guide and advise. Depending on the ingredients and process of creating the vaccines, employers will have to wait for one that is deemed suitable for certain groups of employees.

Protecting employees from personal injury

With all three vaccines reporting possible side effects, employers in Hong Kong may be more concerned about the risk of employees making increased claims on the company’s group health insurance policy, and so increasing the premiums paid. The worst-case scenario would be an employee falling severely ill or dying as a result of being vaccinated. Whether an employer is made liable for such circumstances will depend on whether the vaccine is enforced by the employer or taken voluntarily by the employee.

As group health insurance is a popular option for employee benefit plans, employers will have to monitor how the long-term effect of vaccines will impact the total claims before working with the insurer or broker to establish better (cost-effective) plans for the workforce.

Maintaining data privacy in the workforce

Employers will be paying particular attention to data collected over the next few months, especially on information on those who have or haven’t been vaccinated. A workplace that enforces data privacy will certainly view this information as sensitive data and would have to be kept securely and used under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

Information on who has been vaccinated may be held by an intermediary (employer), and caution would need to be taken about who has access to this information (the data controller), as well as how the information is used such as for dismissal or recruitment purposes.

Review plans and guidelines for 2021

Employers across Hong Kong are encouraged to engage with the government or health authorities over the coming weeks to establish the right strategy for implementing a vaccination program. The aforementioned considerations will be important in helping employers devise a vaccination plan that helps mitigate the risk of infections but also take into account the varying factors that affect the workplace. Check out this article for more on how to reopen and manage your workplace during COVID-19.

Get in touch with Pacific Prime Hong Kong

For more information and guidance on group health insurance and business solutions for 2021, you are encouraged to get in touch with a broker like Pacific Prime Hong Kong. With over 20 years of servicing clients in Hong Kong and around the world, Pacific Prime can help clients find the best group health insurance plan that provides adequate coverage for the workforce and within the budget available.

Head to our corporate page to learn more and contact us today for impartial advice and guidance on business solutions for 2021 and beyond!

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Jimmy

Content Creator at Pacific Prime Hong Kong
Jimmy is a content writer who helps simplify insurance for readers interested in international private medical insurance. He is on a mission in Thailand to support locals, expatriates, and businesses by bring the latest news and updates to his Pacific Prime blog articles.

His expert view and wealth of knowledge on insurance can also be found in his blogs for China, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Jimmy