Coronavirus: 'Good reason' NZ isn't front of the queue for vaccines - Michael Baker

One of the country's leading epidemiologists has backed the Government's tardy COVID-19 vaccine rollout, saying it's more important other countries get access to them first. 

The University of Otago's Michael Baker says the delay will also ensure when we do get access to the vaccines, we'll have all the information we need to do it right. 

"We are slightly further down the queue, with good reason - because these vaccines are really life-saving at the moment in countries with very intense pandemics," Dr Baker told The AM Show on Tuesday.

COVID-19 minister Chris Hipkins in September told Newshub Nation New Zealand would be "front of the queue" when vaccines were available, but that's since shifted to the second quarter of 2021 for frontline workers and the third and fourth for the rest of us. 

"You only need to look around the world to see the huge need that exists abroad. People are dying daily in large numbers. That is just not the case here," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week.

Potential problems have also emerged with one of the vaccines New Zealand has on order - AstraZeneca and Oxford University's offering doesn't appear to be as effective against the rapidly spreading South African variant of the disease.

"The good news with the vaccine is they all appear effective at preventing serious disease and death... and they all seem very safe," said Dr Baker. "The problem is some of them don't seem to be very effective at preventing mild disease - that is a problem because it means they won't interrupt transmission. It's hard to achieve herd immunity if people who are vaccinated can still transmit it. The data is still coming in on this." 

The study which found the possible flaw hasn't yet been peer-reviewed, but South Africa has wasted no time in halting its planned rollout of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, despite already having received 1 million doses. 

It's a situation health officials here will be wanting to avoid. 

"We're learning more about how these vaccines behave overseas, so that's going to really help us design [the rollout] and deliver the vaccine very effectively," said Dr Baker. 

Over the next 12 months however, Dr Baker says our approach at the border will have to change as the virus does.

"The risk has risen - there's more infected people than ever coming into New Zealand and some of the variants are more infectious, so we need to raise our control measures accordingly."

Recently there have been cases of COVID-19 in the community in people who've apparently picked up the virus while in the Pullman Hotel, a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility, but not tested positive until after they'd finished their 14-day stint. 

Dr Baker says perhaps another week of quarantine at home is needed after the stay in a Government-run facility, praising Taiwan's system, which allows people to serve their quarantine at home - but under strict enforcement. Taiwan has only had 928 cases and nine deaths to date. 

"Taiwan has done extremely well. I think we should learn from some of their approaches."

Another, suggested by the National Party, is to stem the flow of new arrivals for a while, to reduce the number of people carrying the virus arriving. There have been as many as 40 cases a week picked up lately, compared to single-digits four or five months ago. 

This is the approach Australia's taken. In January they had slightly more than 1000 people arriving each day - about twice what New Zealand has taken in, despite a population five times bigger.

"What Australia's done is halve the number of people coming into the country to reduce their risk. That is an option for New Zealand - we take a lot more people per capita than Australia at the moment."

New Zealand's COVID-19 response to date has been regularly ranked among the world's best, despite the frequent close calls.