NZ cannot afford to wait for COVID-19 vaccine, scientists say

Professor Graham Le Gros.
Professor Graham Le Gros. Photo credit: Supplied to RNZ

By Katie Scotcher for RNZ

Some of the country's top scientists are calling on the government to urgently invest millions into research and development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Estimates suggest it will take at least a year before international doses can be produced in large amounts and there are fears New Zealand could be near the back of the queue for supplies.

Scientists here say New Zealand cannot afford to wait on other countries to develop a vaccination and are urging the government to invest millions from the public purse into research and development.

New Zealanders have been regularly warned, life may not return to normal until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. A global race to develop one is under way but Malaghan Institute director Professor Graham Le Gros warns that New Zealand urgently needs its own solution.

"The vaccine will come too late to save New Zealand. We need a vaccine earlier, not later, we cannot wait.

"We need to have a vaccine so we can trade again. We're a trading nation that requires goods and services and people moving all around the world, and only a vaccine will allow people to travel to overseas to where COVID-19 is endemic, and only a vaccine will protect us from the virus coming back into New Zealand."

A group of researchers at the University of Otago are thought to be the only scientists in the country currently growing and testing the virus.

Professor Le Gros said there are other labs in this country that are capable of developing and mass producing a COVID-19 vaccine. Researchers already employed by the government could start figuring out how to immunise people straight away, he said.

"In the case of some of the Government organisations like AgResearch, just getting the government to tell the government workers that they can now re-direct their energies to COVID-19 issues.

"One of the funny things is, we're still bound by our regulations and our job descriptions ... we need the government to say 'this is now the job to do'."

University of Otago Associate Professor James Ussher said up to $10 million is required for research and clinical trials but the know-how is there.

"We do have facilities and we do have capacity, and we do have the expertise and knowledge to do that, but what we do need is a commitment of government to fund that.

"It needs to be a decision that's made sooner rather than later because the clock is ticking and these things take a while to do ... the longer we leave it, the longer we're going to be without a vaccine in New Zealand for New Zealanders."

Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist and associate professor at the University of Auckland, said scientists around the world are working at never-before-seen rates to develop a vaccine.

Auckland University's Helen Petousis-Harris.
Auckland University's Helen Petousis-Harris. Photo credit: University of Auckland

Once one is found, Dr Petousis-Harris said New Zealand firms should be ready to mass produce.

"One of the challenges is going to be producing enough vaccine. There will probably be a number of different candidates, but to produce enough for the world very quickly is an enormous undertaking.

"So, if we did have those facilities available that could be modified in order to do something like that, I think that would be enormously helpful."

Dr Petousis-Harris said long-term underinvestment has meant the world wasn't as prepared as it could've been for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government investment here will also help prepare the country for the next pandemic, she said.

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