COVID vaccine: Government preparing for possibility of annual COVID-19 jabs

As the country prepares for its first COVID jabs, quarantine free trans-Tasman travel remains a looming possibility as long as Australia doesn't pull the plug over small outbreaks, Chris Hipkins says.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced today that the first batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine will arrive in New Zealand next week, earlier than expected.

The first vaccinations should be able to be delivered to border workers from next Saturday, she said.

COVID-19 Response Minister Hipkins told Checkpoint that the country is prepared for the rollout with a suitable supply of freezers for storing the vaccine as well as syringes with more ordered. The jabs would be administered by an existing taskforce who would just need a two-hour training module specific to the Pfizer vaccine.

He agreed the Pfizer vaccine is complicated to prepare so the rollout would not start the day the plane landed.

"There is a period of time where you have to separate out the vaccines, you have to quality check them to make sure they've been kept at the right temperature for the entire duration of their transport to New Zealand and to the cold store...

"They then need to be broken down so that they can be distributed in smaller amounts. Now that will take us a little bit of time which is why, even though we are hoping to get the plane arriving early in the week, we've said that Saturday is when we'll kick off..."

The first recipient would definitely be a border worker - a nurse, cleaner or a security person - members of the at-risk workforce who needed to be vaccinated along with their close contacts, such as family members, as quickly as possible.

Trans-Tasman bubble

Hipkins said the possibility of quarantine-free travel to both Australia and the Cook Islands remained a strong possibility by the end of March.

However, while some good protocols had been agreed with Australia on trans-Tasman travel, New Zealand needed to get a better understanding of how Australia would react in the event of an outbreak.

"Certainly the Northland case that we dealt with a couple of weeks ago had that happened in Australia, we would not have been closing off travel from Australia to New Zealand, if the trans-Tasman bubble was operating.

"That was the decision that Australia took so that's a risk that we need to understand more. So if a single case in New Zealand was going to close the border for New Zealanders travelling to Australia, we need to really understand that because that has a big implication for how hard and how fast we move ahead with it.

"The last thing that we want to have is tens of thousands of New Zealanders ... we'd be having 100-plus flights a week going either way across the Tasman, we'd need to be very certain about what would happen in the event of positive cases on either side of the Tasman, and both countries need to be absolutely sort of locked into that.  

"Otherwise it will create big headaches for either side in the event that we have to respond to either an outbreak or even just an isolated case."

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

Herd immunity modelling

Asked about the percentage of the population that would need to take up the vaccines to reach herd immunity, Hipkins said there was no specific number on that because it would depend  "to some extent, on who gets what vaccines and how many of each vaccine we end up using.

"So we've got four different vaccines. They've got different effectiveness rates with different populations. And so, we're still in the process of approving the other three vaccines, and the  trials and the medical data on those isn't yet fully in. So we can't really make that prediction at this point until we've got that extra information."

He said buying several vaccines is not an impediment to reaching herd immunity.

"No, not at all. One of the reasons that we bought a portfolio of vaccines, is when we bought them we didn't know how effective each of them would be and so we wanted to make sure we've got options, and we absolutely do have options, so that we can make sure that we are administering the most effective vaccination campaign for New Zealand."

He said a herd immunity prediction would likely come in the second half of the year once more detailed modelling had been undertaken following the approvals process for those other vaccines and final decisions on who was getting which vaccine.

He said the government is already planning for the possibility that a COVID jab could be a yearly event.

"That's still an uncertain quantity. We don't know how long the vaccines will be effective and how long it will be before people need a booster. And so, we're again planning for every scenario there so ... we're working on the basis that we may need to do the whole thing again next year.

"Our flu vaccination campaign has been scaling up year on year, but yes it would be a very big undertaking to have to do this every year but at this point, the prudent thing to do is to plan for that eventuality..."