Coronavirus: Senior doc pins hopes on AstraZeneca vaccine as hundreds of unvaccinated health staff stood down

One of the country's top doctors is hoping the AstraZeneca vaccine can lure back medical professionals who refuse to get the Pfizer jab. 

This week the Government's vaccine mandate kicked in for the health workforce, seeing 1309 of the approximately 80,000 staff employed by district health boards (DHBs) stood down to protect their colleagues and patients from COVID-19.

"It's a very difficult number," Bryan Betty, medical director of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, told The AM Show on Thursday.

"I mean, 1300 staff of 80,000 staff across the DHBs is a significant number - up to 4 percent in some DHBs. So there is a lot of work that needs to be done here to fill these gaps of actually really critical essential workers in the hospital system."

Worst-hit is Northland, which has the second-worst vaccination rates in the country, ahead of only Tairawhiti. Up north, just 83 percent of those eligible have had their first dose and 72 their second. While that's still better than many European countries - including France and Germany - the figures lag other New Zealand DHB regions such as Auckland (95 percent first dose, 90 percent second) Capital and Coast (94/87) and Waitemata (93/86). 

Dr Betty doesn't think the shortfall can be reduced by convincing the holdouts to get the Pfizer jab either. Developed with German company BioNTech, the Comirnaty vaccine - to use its brand name - is one of the first widely used vaccines based on mRNA technology, which has been in development for decades. 

Its efficacy - at least in the short term that scientists have had the ability to track - surpassed scientists' expectations, and after hundreds of millions of doses its safety has been effectively proven. There have been unsubstantiated claims the vaccine could yet have long-term effects we haven't seen, but experts say there's no known mechanism through which these could be caused

"I think people that have got to this stage where they've decided to sacrifice their job… because of their beliefs about the vaccine, are very difficult to turn around," said Dr Betty. "I suppose… if we get a second vaccine into the country such as AstraZeneca, which is produced in a different way, some of that workforce may decide they want to be vaccinated."

The AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with the University of Oxford, is based on a more traditional technology. It's efficacy doesn't appear to be as high as Comirnaty however, and it's faced public opposition in some countries over fears of serious side-effects, though they are still extremely rare. 

"The vaccine we have at the moment is perfectly safe, there is no problem with it," said Dr Betty. "But if you have made a philosophical choice about that, maybe that will be an option to get back in."

The Government decided to go all-in with Pfizer's jab after it achieved stunning results in its trials and in real-world settings in places like Israel, which had early access. Last week it said AstraZeneca would soon be available for those who can't get the mRNA vaccine for genuine health reasons - estimated to be just a few hundred Kiwis - but later said it would be offered to anyone, particularly those affected by the mandates. 

Dr Betty said while mandates raise "complex" issues, they're the right course of action to take.

"You're more likely to contract COVID, you are more likely to spread COVID and you are more likely to end up with a worse outcome from COVID - that is in hospital, in ICU or even dead," he said of people who refuse to get vaccinated.

"So the issue here is if you have a health worker in a hospital setting, they are more likely to contract COVID and potentially spread it - to the elderly, to the immunocompromised, to those patients with comorbidities who tend to be in hospital."