China's Vaccine Tourists Drain Hong Kong's Supply of Cancer Drug

Medical tourism has been a great business for Manna Wang, an insurance agent in Shenzhen who’s been helping Chinese women travel to Hong Kong for a vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer.

Business has been so good, in fact, that the medicine is running is out.

In the two years since Merck & Co.’s Gardasil 9 became available in Hong Kong, about 2 million mainlanders have come for the shots, according to the Xinhua News Agency. With the drugmaker unable to keep up, some clinics are turning away Chinese patients, and angry mainlanders have protested at Merck’s local office. The cost of the vaccine has more than tripled to HK$8,000 (about $1,000) and complaints have flooded the city’s consumer protection agency.

“The vaccine price is crazy,” said Wang, who last month stopped booking reservations for mainland women seeking the drug. “It’s a good vaccine, just not worth that price.”

The supply crunch is just the latest example of how the sheer scale of Chinese demand has the power to disrupt life in Hong Kong. In 2013, a buying spree by mainlanders caused shortages of baby formula at city stores. The year before that, there were shortages of hospital beds because so many Chinese women were coming to the city to give birth.

“Hong Kong will always get hit by unexpected demand from Chinese consumers,” said Fielding Chen, a Bloomberg economist in Hong Kong. “It’s always difficult to forecast.”

The events that led to Hong Kong’s vaccine scramble began last summer when Merck was the victim of a cyber attack that disrupted production of Gardasil 9, which is the top-of-the-line HPV vaccine because it offers the broadest range of protection.

The city isn’t the only place in the region where supplies are tight. Some clinics in New Zealand and Singapore have also reported shortages.

Unintended Consequences

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