Coronavirus: New Zealand accused of 'stockpiling' COVID-19 vaccines that could go to poor nations

Oxfam says at the current rate of vaccination, it will take nearly six decades to get everyone in the world protected against COVID-19.

And the charity is accusing the Government of stockpiling far more doses than it needs, putting not just poorer nations at risk, but Kiwis too. But the Government says the vaccines might be needed, and it has been making donations to our Pacific neighbours.

Oxfam has repeatedly called for patents on vaccines to be waived so poorer nations aren't reliant on charity from the wealthy or the goodwill of pharmaceutical companies. 

Despite criticism that our rollout has been too slow, New Zealand has been among the nations donating jabs - mostly through the international COVAX initiative, a joint effort involving the World Health Organization, and the public-private Gavi Vaccine Alliance. 

But Oxfam says COVAX has "delivered less than a third of the doses it promised to by the end of May" and likely to reach just 10 percent of people living in the developing world by the end of 2021.

"The sad fact is developing countries cannot depend on COVAX or the good will of the pharma industry to save the lives of their people," said Oxfam health policy manager Anna Marriott. 

People in G7 nations - the world's richest seven countries - were 77 times more likely to be offered a vaccine in May, and at the current rate will have completed their vaccine rollouts by January 8, 2022. The developing world isn't on track to finish theirs until 2078.

New Zealand's plan is to have widespread coverage by the end of 2021, the pace ramping up at the end of July when large shipments from our provider, Pfizer, start to arrive

"New Zealand has been a leader during this terrible pandemic; across the globe, world leaders and whole populations are looking to us to see what we will do next," said Rachael Le Mesurier, executive director of Oxfam Aotearoa. 

"This is the perfect opportunity for our Prime Minister to use her position to help those in need."

New Zealand initially rejected the idea of waiving patents, saying it had trust in the COVAX effort. We did a U-turn when the US, under new President Joe Biden, switched course and threw its support behind the 'People's Vaccine'. 

In addition to this however, Oxfam wants the Government to give away all the vaccines it's ordered - "enough to vaccinate our population almost six times over" - to those who need them. 

"If we hold these vaccines back from those who urgently need them - we are just helping the virus mutate until there is a variant our vaccines can’t stop," said Le Mesurier. "New Zealand will not be safe until we are all safe."

New Zealand initially ordered vaccines from four different suppliers - Pfizer/BioNTech, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Novavax. The initial orders were for 1.5 million doses from Pfizer, 5 million from Janssen, 10.7 million from Novavax and 7.6 million from AstraZeneca. 

After the success of the Pfizer jab in its initial rollouts overseas in places like Israel and the UK, the Government decided it would be the only jab used in the New Zealand vaccination programme. It ordered another 8.5 million doses, bringing the total number of jabs of all types to around 33 million. The Pfizer, Novavax and AstraZeneca vaccines require two doses, the Janssen just one. 

Oxfam told Newshub even though we haven't taken delivery of the Novavax, Janssen or AstraZeneca vaccines, the fact we - and many other nations - ordered them has created a backlog, making it more difficult for COVAX and poorer nations to buy them. 

Newshub asked the Ministry of Health what we were doing with the unused vaccines. Fiona Michel, general manager sector engagement workforce and welfare said so far only the Pfizer jab had been approved for use here, and the others were still "under review" and none had been imported yet.

But the Government hasn't cancelled the orders, just in case we need them.

"The other COVID-19 vaccines we have purchase agreements for may be used in the future, pending the usual review and decision making processes," a spokesperson said. "That's one reason we have multiple agreements."

So far 1.6 million of the AstraZeneca doses have been donated to COVAX for use in the Pacific, Michel said.

"Donated doses delivered via COVAX so far include Papua New Guinea (146,400), Solomon Islands (28,800), Timor-Leste (24,000), Tonga (4800), Tuvalu (4800) and Fiji (2400). Separately from the COVAX donations, New Zealand has offered Fiji AstraZeneca doses for 250,000 people."

New Zealand has also "offered comprehensive, end-to-end support for COVID-19 vaccine rollouts to the Realm and Polynesia", Michel said.

"The countries will make decisions on how they manage their own vaccine roll-out and what support they need from us. We will work together to make joint announcements, including on timeframes, once plans are confirmed. This work has begun with the Cook Islands' May rollout, and Niue began their COVID-19 vaccine roll out today [Friday]."

The Ministry of Health says it's ahead of schedule with its vaccine rollout here, but less than half of those in the two of the highest-risk groups have had their first jab yet, documents released to Newshub this week showed.