COVID-19 vaccine: New Zealand preparing for biggest vaccination programme in our history

Less than a year since our first case of COVID-19, we're about to get our first vaccine.

This time next week it'll be going into the arms of border workers, but that's just the start. COVID-19 jabs could become an annual event.

Nurse Bia Pham has been at the front line of the COVID-19 effort the whole way, from assessing returnees at the border to testing and working in MIQs. Now she's completing that circle.

"It's a privilege and an honour to be able to be part of a team and a service that's enabled us to keep our country and our people safe," she says.

Already an independent vaccinator, she's now training up to administer the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines - and it's going to need a mammoth effort.

As many as 14,000 vaccinators will undergo online training for COVID-19 vaccines, administering up to 20,000 jabs per day at the peak.

"We've been training third-gen nursing students, we've been training paramedics, fourth, fifth, sixth-year medical students," says Immunisation Advisory Centre manager Loretta Roberts.

It'll involve pharmacists and GPs - and they could even call on retired doctors and nurses.

"And we're also focusing very closely working with Maori and Pacific providers and supporting them to get more of their health professionals trained," says Roberts. "We are looking at the biggest army that we could."

It's the biggest vaccination programme New Zealand has ever done and we can't afford to mess it up. The cost of vaccinating the country will run into the hundreds of millions.

Logistics will be key to minimising wastage. Once out of the deep freeze the Pfizer vaccine needs to be in people's arms within five days.

On top of that each vial holds six doses, but the sixth dose can only be extracted with a special needle, which we have on order.

"Getting the last dose is tricky because of the shape of the vial, unless you have a specific syringe," says Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall.

"The critical thing is whether you can get the last dose out, because otherwise you're wasting 16 percent of your vaccine."

The other tricky thing is getting them around the country - from the deep freeze they have just five days to get them around the country and into people's arms.

They've been doing real-time walkthroughs, taking lessons from last year's flu vaccine distribution failures.

But it's not just Pfizer that's on order - AstraZeneca, Jansen and Novavax are hot on its heels.

"It's really beneficial to have a variety of vaccines because we don't actually know what will give the best immunity, the longest-lived immunity," says Malaghan Institute director Professor Graham Le Gros.

And they all have pros and cons.

"Some work well in older people, some don't work quite too well in younger people."

We'll know more by the time we get them in the second half of the year. And once here, much like the flu vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines will be here to stay.

"We are in this for the long haul, the virus is going to play with us for quite some years to come," says Prof Le Gros.

"We're going to be making better and better vaccines over the coming years, the virus is going to mutate, try and keep ahead of that vaccine programme. It's a long journey."

There's no target for herd immunity, but to work it will need a high uptake.

"If we were to reopen the borders we'd really like to be in a position where we have confidence there were very few people vulnerable to COVID-19 left in the community," says Dr Verrall.

For that to happen they need the community on board.

"Certain people have asked about when it's coming, is it safe, why's it been rushed, that it's come pretty fast, is it safe and my reassurance to them is that, you know, every vaccine is safe. We wouldn't give it to you unless it's safe," says Pham.

What's becoming clear is that we're likely to have to learn to live with this virus but with vaccines helping to avoid its deadly and devastating impacts.