Coronavirus: COVID-19 vaccine programme 'ready to roll', first jabs on Friday - Chris Hipkins

The first Kiwis to get vaccinated against the coronavirus will receive their jabs on Friday, COVID-19 response Minister Chris Hipkins has announced.

Ahead of the first round of vaccinations for border and managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) workers on Saturday, those who'll be administering the jabs will be vaccinated. 

"The final steps in our preparations for border workers to receive their vaccines on Saturday, and for the start of our overall programme, will include vaccinators who will be vaccinating our border workforce over the next two to three weeks, receiving the first of their vaccines," Hipkins said on Thursday afternoon.

"This will take place tomorrow, on Friday."

More than 100 people will receive the first of two doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, which uses brand-new mRNA technology that's never been used in a publicly available vaccine before. It passed its trials with flying colours, and real-world data from Israel - where more than three-quarters of the population has already had their first dose - suggests it is very effective. 

It isn't the easiest vaccine to store and transport however, needing to be kept below -70C. Hipkins said officials had been preparing for months, stress-testing the health system and getting expert advice from the New Zealand Defence Force and dairy giant Fonterra. 

"There will be challenges in logistics with something that is as big as this - it is the biggest vaccination campaign in New Zealand's history. But the systems that we've set up for phase one, for our border workers, are robust and flexible, and the more that we do to test them... the more that we will be prepared to scale up the system when we reach that point."

Chris Hipkins with a sign-language interpreter.
Chris Hipkins with a sign-language interpreter. Photo credit: Newshub.

Dry-run a success

The first Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines arrived in New Zealand on Monday, weeks ahead of schedule. The 60,000 doses are enough to fully vaccinate 30,000 people. Another 225,000 doses are expected to arrive by March.

A dry-run from end-to-end was carried out on Wednesday he said, ensuring vaccinators were "prepared for every potential scenario" - ranging from a mishap as simple as a box of doses being dropped to as complex as the technology required to deliver the vaccine failing completely. 

"It included things like how to handle the arrival of a thermal protection box that's used to transport the vaccine, and how to validate a safe and secure handover of the vaccien between those who are delivering them and those who are administering them... 

"These tests, whether they be large or small, give us confidence that we can move into real-time vaccinations over the weekend."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, appearing with Hipkins, said vaccines will only be shipped to local vaccination centres daily based on how many bookings they have, to "minimise any potential wastage".

At the time the Government placed the order with Pfizer, modelling suggested around 15 percent of the doses purchased will be lost to wastage.

"Of course we now have all the infrastructure in place... and knowledge about how to use it and have tested the cold chain, we will be looking to reduce that figure down." 

'Ready to roll'

Hipkins said they're "ready to roll" and start vaccinating New Zealand's 12,000-strong border workforce from Saturday. 

"While our workforce modelling shows we only need 100 vaccinators to immunise everyone who works at our border, we already have more than that who have completed the necessary training to administer the Pfizer vaccines."

In addition to the 100 vaccinators ready to go, he said another 300 are in training to scale-up the programme ahead of the wider public vaccination campaign later this year. 

"We're on track to ensure that another layer of protection for New Zealanders, particularly those who are working hard at our border, another layer of protection is in place against COVID-19." 

In addition to protecting those at the border and in MIQ, it's hoped the first round of vaccinations will protect the wider public by reducing the chances of a frontline worker picking up the virus and spreading it into the community. 

But while the vaccines appear very effective at reducing the likelihood of illness, there's no hard evidence yet they prevent people carrying the virus and spreading it asymptomatically. There is evidence however asymptomatic carriers are less infectious than those showing symptoms, so it should help.