Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins proclaimed last November that when vaccines were approved, New Zealand would be “at the front of the queue” to get them.
Fast-forward three months. Nine vaccines have been approved globally. Some countries which handled the pandemic badly, like the UK, have already vaccinated millions of people.
Israel is leading the charge. There, nearly half the population has already received a first dose of the vaccine. So what happened? Why is New Zealand seemingly lagging behind much of the developed world when, in a certain sense, we’re the teacher’s pet of Covid-19 responses?
Newsroom.co.nz political reporter Marc Daalder says that while other countries have streamlined – or even bypassed – their usual processes for testing medications, New Zealand’s strong performance in eliminating the virus means we can take our time to make sure the vaccine is safe.
“In New Zealand, we’re in a special situation. We don’t have to give emergency approval. We can take a step back and look at all the evidence before we make a decision on whether this vaccine is safe and effective enough. It’s not a foregone conclusion … and it shows we’re doing our own homework, and not relying on other countries to do it for us.”
Daalder points out that New Zealand is in a unique position, and we can afford to wait while MedSafe goes through the process of approving the vaccines for use.
“No one is dying if we wait. Whereas in other countries, even if the vaccine was less safe, they may give authorisation because it would save more lives in the net,” he says.
There is also a moral imperative in waiting, Daalder suggests: the whole world wants to get their hands on Covid vaccines. But, to put it simply, other countries need it more than New Zealand at this point.
“[The] last time someone died of Covid in New Zealand, it was September. In many other countries, the last time someone died was the past 24 hours, or the past hour, or the past few minutes. It’s something to think about. I’m not making an argument one way or another … but there should be a conversation around it.
“There shouldn’t be this assumption that we deserve to be at the front of the queue – that we did our part, we eliminated Covid-19, and now we deserve to enjoy the economic benefits of that.
“[That] may be true. But people are dying. Other countries need it more, and frankly, we don’t really need it at all, at the moment. We owe it to the rest of the world to have a conversation about it.”
Last week, Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins laid out a timeline for what processes Covid-19 vaccines have to go through to be used in New Zealand; when the first vaccines will be administered; and when a mass-vaccination programme will be rolled out.
The Pfizer/BioNTech will be the first rolled out. It could be tested by MedSafe as early as this week, and used to immunise border security workers as early as March. Mass vaccinations of the wider public are expected to start in the second half of the year.