Chris Hipkins brushes off EU threat to block COVID-19 vaccine exports as Ashley Bloomfield targets 'minimum' 70 percent jab coverage

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield hopes a minimum 70 percent of Kiwis get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Government is keeping an eye on Europe's threat to block exports beyond its borders.   

Brussels threatened on Monday to block exports of COVID-19 vaccines outside of the block over AstraZeneca's announcement that deliveries will be reduced for a few weeks - and it could affect New Zealand. 

The Government has invested in a portfolio of four vaccines - 750,000 doses from Pfizer/BioNTech, 5 million from Janssen, 3.8 million from the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca, and 5.36 million from Novavax. 

COVID-19 Response Minister, who joined Dr Bloomfield at Wednesday's 1pm press conference, said he was aware of what's happening in Europe, but trusted vaccine producers to honour their pre-purchase agreements with New Zealand. 

"I'm not blind to what's happening in the rest of the world. We have done what we can do in terms of pre-purchase agreements that we have in securing the supplies to support that, we're doing everything we can at the New Zealand end, but we can't necessarily control what's happening around the rest of the world," Hipkins said. 

"I know that the pharmaceutical companies developing the vaccines will be working very hard to fulfil the obligations they've signed into."

He said that's why the Government invested in a range of vaccine candidates. 

"You can never anticipate when you begin a process like this, what the delivery sequence is going to be, what the efficacy rates of the different vaccine candidates are going to be, and so if you like, New Zealand has tried to spread our risk by buying into four different vaccine candidates," he said. 

"AstraZeneca, we have some pre-purchase agreements with them, I know that they are working hard to deliver those, but again I want to highlight this is an international crisis that we're dealing with, there will be very heavy demand for vaccines right around the world, and we're working very hard to make sure we get the supplies that we need."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

Dr Bloomfield seemed unconcerned by the EU's threat. 

"These vaccines are not being manufactured in just one location. In fact, in the case of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Australia has an arrangement to start manufacturing it on shore in due course, so it's not just dependent on the manufacturing of it in Belgium or any specific country."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Tuesday that New Zealand's medicine regulator Medsafe is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine by next Wednesday. 

Dr Bloomfield explained why Medsafe needs to approve the vaccines when regulators in the United States and Britain are already rolling them out. 

"The vaccine is being used in most other countries on the basis of an emergency approval, not a full actual registration process," he said, adding that Medsafe has been working closely with Australia's regulator The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). 

Dr Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health's ambition would be to see at least 70 percent of New Zealanders vaccinated against COVID-19 this year, at a minimum. 

"We have been doing some population surveying and what we know at the moment from results in December is around 70 percent of people say that if they had good information they wouldn't hesitate to get the vaccine," he said. 

"There are another 20 percent of people who would want to be really assured and I would call that group the 'vaccine hesitant'. They need good information and they need advice from people they trust. Somewhere up to 10 percent of people at this point are saying they wouldn't be vaccinated."

It comes after protesters showed up at testing stations in Northland on Tuesday spreading misinformation about COVID-19, and frustrating locals and police over fears it might confuse people and make them distrust vaccinations. 

Dr Bloomfield said even if 70 percent of the population was vaccinated against the virus, it wouldn't necessarily be enough to open up our border. 

"We'd have to see because it depends which 70 percent have been vaccinated and I dare say whilst 70 percent as a figure would be a minimum - our aspiration is way higher than that. We would be aspiring to get around 90 percent and we would be making sure that every New Zealander has the opportunity to receive the vaccine."

The first vaccines to arrive in New Zealand are expected before the end of March for border workers and quarantine staff. The general population will start receiving jabs in the second half of the year. 

Hipkins said the vaccination campaign will likely last the entire year, and an awareness campaign will begin soon.