Revealed: Archaic genetic modification law stifles progress on New Zealand's own COVID-19 vaccine

A leading immunologist has revealed New Zealand's archaic genetic modification law has stifled work on a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research has been tasked with the job. Research director Prof Graham Le Gros admits the regulations around the technology have held his work back.

"There are certain cautions and certain areas we knew just weren't worth going."

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) hasn't evolved significantly since 1998. Genetically modified organisms - or GMOs - have genetic material that's been altered.

"It absolutely compromises the cost, increases by tenfold the cost of work here, it pains me, it pains me just how much money and time is spent to satisfy historic concern, not relevant concern," Dr Le Gros said.

The Government's been implored by officials to start a public conversation about the regulations and modernise them. It's been told genetic technologies have helped rapidly develop all COVID-19 jabs that have been secured for use here.

Pfizer's vaccine - the main vaccine used in New Zealand - utilises a new gene-based technology called mRNA, while the AstraZeneca, Janssen and Novavax jabs all contain GMOs.

"We used the most sophisticated genetic technologies to sequence the virus, understand what the virus is and then rattle out a vaccine within 60 days," Dr Le Gros said. "That is impressive and that's actually saved millions and millions of people so you cannot discount the power of GMOs genetic technologies to keep us safe."

Official advice to the Environment Minister detailed the uphill task scientists face with the current law.

"The existing regulatory framework does not provide simple options to reduce regulatory approval processes for the use of gene editing in medical uses that results in no inheritable traits.

"Due to the nature of the regulatory framework, fundamental changes to the HSNO would be required to streamline, or reduce, regulatory processes for the use of GM in medical research or in containment.

"A comprehensive review of New Zealand's approach to regulating genetic technologies is likely to offer greater benefits than one focussed solely on research in containment, or the use of GM technology for medical purposes."

The Government was told a public conversation should be used to spark change.

Environment Minister David Parker refused to be interviewed on the topic - a spokesperson for the minister said a review of the regulations isn't part of the Government's manifesto for this term.

Genetics professor Jack Heinemann believes the law is still fit for purpose.

"The way we regulate it helps us identify risks to produce safe biotechnologies for release. Rather than find out about the harm after release," he said.

"There's some possibly some improvements that could be made, but it's unlikely the legislation has to be opened for that purpose."

Though Dr Heinemann agrees if it's holding back medical research, the law should be looked at - something biochemistry professor Kurt Krause says needs to happen fast.

"It's capable of changing and adapting and we've got to be capable of adapting and changing our treatments as it is. So it has an advantage right now because it has no laws restricting it doing all the GMO changing so we want to make sure our laws aren't preventing us from doing what COVID-19's doing."