A promising vaccine against COVID-19 could be available to New Zealanders as early as the first quarter of 2021, according to the Government.
An interim analysis has found a vaccine candidate developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to be 90 percent effective in protecting people - without evidence of prior infection - against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is responsible for more than 1.26 million deaths and 50.7 million infections worldwide.
Hopes are soaring that a potential end to the pandemic is in sight, following months of stringent lockdown restrictions, closed borders and heightened uncertainty - battering economics and throwing daily life into disarray.
New Zealand's response to the virus has been internationally lauded, hailed as a leading strategy alongside the likes of Taiwan - the East Asian country managing to eliminate the virus without resorting to harsh lockdown measures, as implemented by Jacinda Ardern's Government.
Yet while Taiwan records more than 200 days without a case of local transmission, New Zealand continues to battle sporadic outbreaks in the community. With a daily influx of imported cases, staff at managed isolation and quarantine facilities (MIQ) across the country are in close proximity to active infections - the latest community cases being two Defence Force (NZDF) workers with a plethora of close contacts between them.
The Pfizer vaccine utilises a completely new technology, injecting the genetic code (RNA) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in order to train the immune system.
When can Kiwis expect the vaccine to become available?
On Tuesday, Minister of Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods confirmed the Government had signed an agreement in October to purchase 1.5 million vaccines - enough for 750,000 people, as the vaccine requires two doses - from Pfizer and BioNTech. The agreement is subject to the vaccine successfully completing its ongoing clinical trials and passing local regulatory approvals.
As a result, Kiwis could be getting immunised against the virus within the first few months of 2021 - at earliest.
"As part of the agreement, vaccine delivery to New Zealand could be as early as the first quarter of 2021," Woods said.
"Provided the vaccine is approved for use in New Zealand by Medsafe, it is possible that some doses will be available to us in the first part of 2021."
Medsafe is currently working to ensure any promising vaccines can be assessed as quickly as possible, against the same criteria used for all other medicines that enter New Zealand.
"Pfizer and BioNTech will keep us up to date as to when data will be available for Medsafe to begin its evaluation process."
Woods said the COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy Taskforce, led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, is currently negotiating with other pharmaceutical companies. Further announcements are expected this month.
The agreement with Pfizer and BioNTech is one of a number of negotiations underway, the minister said. The additional agreements will ensure that once the portfolio is completed, "we will have sufficient COVID-19 vaccines for the whole population".
Who is top priority for vaccination?
The Ministry of Health is preparing for a range of vaccine scenarios, the statement said, and is yet to finalise the expected vaccination approach. However, three broad groups are being considered as high priority:
- those at risk of spreading COVID-19
- those at risk of contracting COVID-19
- those at risk of increased morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19.
"Ensuring equity of outcomes is a key measure of success, including protection for Māori, Pacific peoples and our most vulnerable population groups, such as older people, disabled people, health workers, essential workers and border staff," Woods said.
The Government has set aside $66.3 million for medical supplies and infrastructure to ensure New Zealand is ready to launch a COVID-19 Immunisation Programme as soon as we obtained a vaccine.
What about the rest of the world?
As reported by The Guardian, Pfizer has said it expects to supply up to 50 million doses worldwide - enough for 25 million people - this year and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021. Countries will then decide, based on their individual vaccination approaches, who in the population is prioritised for vaccination.
In the United Kingdom, the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation has recommended that, presuming the medication is effective among the elderly, prioritising rest-home workers and residents - followed by anyone over 80 and other healthcare workers. After that, people are expected to receive their doses in decreasing age order. The country has already purchased 40 million doses.
The European Union has secured 200 million doses to distribute, while the companies have a US$1.95 billion contract with the American government to deliver 100 million doses, beginning this year.
Vaccine effectiveness 'very encouraging' - Prof Murdoch
The efficacy of Pfizer's vaccine is "certainly very encouraging", said Professor David Murdoch, a leading infectious diseases physician at the University of Otago.
Ninety-four COVID-19 infections have been recorded so far in a study that has enrolled nearly 44,000 participants, he noted.
"However, this is not the final analysis of the study, which is planned when a total of 164 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been recorded," he said.
"Once these final results are available and peer-reviewed we will have a more precise estimate of the vaccine's effectiveness, as well as detailed information on safety and how effective the vaccine is against severe disease."
He acknowledged that it's not yet known how long immunity will last following vaccination.