Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer confirms health ministry didn't take up extra vaccines offer for Northland

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has confirmed the Government was offered 30,000 more vaccines to help with the Northland meningitis outbreak in 2018 - but did not take it.

Pfizer's Anne Harris confirmed at the Health Select Committee on Wednesday that it offered the additional vaccines to the Ministry of Health in November last year, despite the ministry only purchasing 20,000 from another supplier. 

"We proactively contacted the ministry because we had seen media reports of meningococcal cases in Northland," Harris, Pfizer's Australia and New Zealand vaccines commercial lead, said. 

"In our experience, we know that often one of the most important response plans is rapid access to vaccines, and really, we were reaching out to see how we could assist in that programme."

Harris said the company felt that if the ministry needed their doses "they would have got in contact with us". She said Pfizer made it clear that the supply situation could "change rapidly". 

Harris appeared at the select committee after National's Associate Health spokesperson and MP for Whangarei, Dr Shane Reti, called for an inquiry into the Northland meningococcal outbreak.

There were seven cases of Meningitis W in Northland last year and the outbreak was declared on 8 November. One teenager died from the disease in October. 

A selective vaccination campaign was rolled out from December 2018 to April 2019 by the Northland District Health Board (DHB) in which 5 to 12-year-olds were excluded.

Anne Harris, Pfizer's Australia and New Zealand vaccines commercial lead, at select committee.
Anne Harris, Pfizer's Australia and New Zealand vaccines commercial lead, at select committee. Photo credit: Newshub

Health Minister David Clark warned of limited vaccinations due to a global shortage. He said at the time, "There is strong international demand for the Men W vaccine, which is in short supply."

But a letter obtained by Dr Reti sent to the Health Minister by Pfizer on 21 May revealed the ministry had been offered 30,000 vaccines. 

And at select committee in June, it was revealed Pharmac - the Government's drug-buying agency - could have secured enough vaccines for a full vaccination programme, but it wasn't considered.  

When asked why the Government ignored the offer of 30,000 doses, the Health Minister insisted the Government's response had been a success.

He told Newshub its targeted vaccination programme was deemed to be the "most effective way of stopping the spread of the disease".

"The ministry has, with the DHB, led a campaign that looks like it's been very effective. You want to focus it where it will be most effect initially. I do want to thank the clinicians that have led this response."

Harris confirmed Pfizer wrote to the Ministry of Health on November 7 with its offer. The following day, they were contacted by a contract manager from Pharmac to discuss the response plan.

Health Minister David Clark Minister insists the Government's response has been a "success".
Health Minister David Clark Minister insists the Government's response has been a "success". Photo credit: Newshub

"In that conversation, they had requested that we would be able to supply 30,000 doses," Harris said. "We came back the next day to confirm to Pharmac that we were able to supply 30,000 doses in about 10-14 days.

"Our intention for reaching out was simply to ask - and we would have spoken to whoever was the relevant stakeholders - how we could support."

Harris said cost and pricing was not discussed. But in June, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, said the cost was a factor in deciding whether to purchase enough vaccines for all under-20s in Northland.

Harris added that Pfizer was contacted by Pharmac again on November 28 asking if they could supply further vaccines in relation to how they could support potential further outbreaks across New Zealand.

Dr Reti has been scathing about the Government's decision not to vaccinate all under-20s in Northland when Pfizer had made the offer. He accused the Health Minister in July of "failing the Northland community".

Last month he called on the Government to release unused vaccines that would expire and make them available free of charge to all Northland children.

Dr Clark said the Government is focused on making sure it has stocks available for any future response.

"That's the way meningococcal in its various forms has been dealt with."

Timeline

  • May 2018: DHB asks the Government for a vaccination response to meningococcal cases 
  • October 2018: Northland DHB issues meningococcal advice after teenager's death
  • November 7, 2018: Pfizer writes to the Ministry of Health with its 30,000 vaccinations offer following reports of an outbreak
  • November 8, 2018: Meningococcal outbreak declared in Northland - and the Government subsequently opts to buy a vaccine of which there were only 20,000 doses
  • February 2019: Dr Reti calls for inquiry into the Northland outbreak response
  • 21 May, 2019: Letter sent by Pfizer to Minister of Health "to continue conversation of availability of supply" in which offer of 30,000 doses was mentioned
  • May 2019: Dr Reti obtains copy of letter 
  • June 2019: It was revealed Pharmac could have secured enough vaccines for a full programme, but that it wasn't considered
  • July 2019: Another case of Meningitis W announced in Northland

Newshub. 

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