Coronavirus: Expert urges Kiwis not to fear COVID-19 vaccines

An expert in infectious diseases is urging Kiwis sceptical of any COVID-19 vaccines they won't be approved for use here based solely on the word of those who are making - and stand to profit - from them. 

A survey earlier this year found only 74 percent of New Zealanders intend to get vaccinated against the deadly disease, which has killed at least 1.54 million people this year. Nearly half of Kiwis wouldn't bother if they had to pay for it, despite the potential serious long-term health risks.

Thirteen percent said they had no intention of getting it at all, potentially putting New Zealand's herd immunity at risk. 

University of Otago expert David Murdoch, who was recently honoured for his efforts around COVID-19, says any vaccine will have to go through the same stringent checks all other medicines do before being approved.

"I think we need to focus on the science and the evidence," he told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"What we are seeing is a very rapid development of these vaccines - I'm sorry to use the word unprecedented again, but it really, really is. It's been remarkable. 

"But there's been a huge focus on safety and effectiveness. Even though the process has been sped up, there are still really high standards of safety that have been looked at. Any in New Zealand will have to go through the same regulatory authorities and standards that we're used to. We're not going to have vaccines unless we've reached that high safety bar."

The UK is barrelling ahead, already approving the Pfizer vaccine - the first approved vaccine for any disease based on mRNA technology. Another showing good efficacy and safety results in phase III trials, Moderna's mRNA-1273, is - as its name suggests - also using the brand new technology. 

Others, such as AstraZeneca's vaccine and Russia's Sputnik V are based on more traditional technology.

David Murdoch.
David Murdoch. Photo credit: The AM Show

Despite the number of promising options, Dr Murdoch says we're not out of the woods just yet. 

"I think we've just got to remember that it wouldn't take a lot to change. We've done exceptionally well, but we've got to keep our guard up. Obviously we're pinning a lot of hopes on vaccines and that's certainly justified, but there's quite a transition period as vaccines come out and we try and contain the situation over the next while."

The first vaccines aren't expected to be administered here until March or later. Unlike countries like the UK, we don't have community transmission of the virus, giving us more time to see if the vaccines truly are safe, as the various manufacturers' data suggests. None of the leading vaccine candidates appear to have caused any major side-effects to date. 

Dr Murdoch says the Government and Ministry of Health officials, despite a few mistakes, have handled the pandemic well. 

"You've got to remember the situation - there was so much that we didn't know about, and there's still a lot we don't know about. We were learning as we were going.

"I think there were some really big, brave decisions. Nobody gets it exactly right, but I think we've done pretty well and I really think we need to commend those decision-makers. They were big, brave decisions and they really panned out, most of them." 

Dr Murdoch has been among the experts advising the Government on what to do. In August he was awarded the University of Otago's Distinguished Research Medal, partly in recognition of his efforts this year.