NZ's COVID-19 vaccine strategy: Our chances of securing lifesaving shots and whether it will be mandatory

New Zealand is "actively exploring all of the options" around a COVID-19 vaccine and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would not make it mandatory because she's certain Kiwis would have the jab voluntarily. 

Ardern's Australian counterpart Scott Morrison recently said it was likely a coronavirus vaccine would be mandatory for Australians if and when it becomes available, but backtracked after concerns were raised by health experts.

"I would expect it to be as mandatory as you could possibly make it. There are always exemptions for any vaccine on medical grounds, but that should be the only basis," he told a Melbourne radio station.

"We are talking about a pandemic that has destroyed the global economy and taken the lives of hundreds of thousands all around the world, and over 430 Australians here."

He later clarified that there are no compulsory vaccines in Australia. 

Ardern doesn't see the need for a compulsory vaccine because "we've actually been able to get the kind of take-up we need to provide herd immunity to date" and she has "every expectation we will be able to do that" in New Zealand without needing to mandate. 

"Keep in mind, people's freedoms are affected by COVID. It is in everyone's interest that we have a wide-reaching comprehensive vaccination programme for New Zealanders, and I have to say that once we have that vaccination available and out, then it is on everyone's individual risk," she said on Wednesday. 

"If they choose not to, they are putting their own health at risk because we would of course remove other controls that have stopped the spread."

Health Minister Chris Hipkins had a similar response. 

"I can see they got themselves into a bit of difficulty in the last 24 hours," he said of Australia. "No, we wouldn't be looking to make them mandatory. I suspect there is going to be very high uptake amongst New Zealanders when a vaccine is available."

Last year Hipkins described anti-vaxxers as "pro-plague".

"Those people who are anti-vaccination are pro plague. It is a ridiculous position, it is not based on science," he said in May 2019.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited the Institute of Environmental Science and Research in Porirua where scientists have been mapping coronavirus genomes.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited the Institute of Environmental Science and Research in Porirua where scientists have been mapping coronavirus genomes. Photo credit: Getty

Will a vaccine be available?

There is still no official vaccine for COVID-19 but there are some promising signs. 

Australia has signed a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars with UK drug manufacturer AstraZeneca to secure a potential vaccine to give to every Australian for free. 

"We're here today to announce that we have signed a letter of intent with AstraZeneca which will enable Australia to access, should it be successful, the vaccine for COVID-19 here," Prime Minister Morrison announced. 

He said there are plans to have it manufactured in Australia and distributed free to 25 million Australians, and the country's Health Minister Greg Hunt said it could be rolled out in New Zealand and across the Pacific. 

"We can produce for Australia, for New Zealand, for our South Pacific region to help others."

Hipkins said the Government isn't putting its faith in one place. 

"I think what Prime Minister Morrison's indicated is if one of them is successful, then they'd be looking to manufacture in Australia and it sounds like that could be a very positive opening for New Zealand," he said on Thursday. 

"But at this point, we're spreading our opportunities - we're making sure we're as engaged in this process as we can be so that whoever hits the jackpot first, we're in there with them to make sure we can get the vaccines for New Zealanders."

The potential vaccine, being developed by an Oxford University group, is seen as a frontrunner in the global race to deliver an effective inoculation against the coronavirus, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 700,000 people. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signed a deal to secure a potential vaccine to give to every Australian for free.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signed a deal to secure a potential vaccine to give to every Australian for free. Photo credit: Getty

Human trials of the potential vaccine began in April and researchers reported in mid-July that it had produced a promising immune response in an early study of more than 500 adults. The final third phase of trials is currently underway. 

Hipkins said the Government is working on making sure New Zealand is ready to go when a vaccine becomes available. 

"There's a whole lot of work happening in that regard," he said on Sunday. "So, at the health end, we're focused on being ready for a vaccine when it's available."

Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods is leading the work in terms of making sure New Zealand is at the font of the queue for a vaccine. 

She announced in May that $37 million would be allocated to a COVID-19 vaccine strategy to enable New Zealand scientists to contribute to global research efforts and explore the potential of vaccine manufacturing capability in New Zealand. 

"It's vital that we contribute to international research efforts as well as ramp up our own research and manufacturing capability," Dr Woods said at the time.

What about other potential vaccines?

Russia has fast-tracked a potential COVID-19 vaccine and has been in talks with the World Health Organisation's Europe office about the experimental inoculation which was recently approved by Russian officials.  

Russia became the first country in the world last week to license a coronavirus vaccine when President Vladimir Putin announced its approval, even admitting he had given it to his daughter. 

The potential vaccine, named Sputnik V after the world's first satellite, has "passed all necessary tests" officials said, but it has been met with scepticism by the international community, because it was approved just two months after trials began.

"I hope that the Russians have actually, definitively proven that the vaccine is safe and effective," Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC News. "I seriously doubt that they've done that."

Hipkins, when asked for an update in terms of when a vaccine might be available for New Zealanders, said there are still too many unknown variables. 

"Look, how long is a piece of string? At this point, it's too soon to put a particular timetable on it."