COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins still confident in vaccine roll-out despite EU threat to tighten exports

The European Union is warning it will tighten COVID-19 vaccine exports and countries are even threatening to sue AstraZeneca for falling behind on fulfilling vaccine supplies. 

New Zealand has pre-purchased enough of that particular vaccine to immunise 3.8 million Kiwis and our Government says it won't hold up our vaccination drive - but a medical expert has warned the threat could disrupt roll-out. 

Oxford University's AstraZeneca factory in Belgium is having production issues with the vaccine, meaning the European Union's supply could be cut in half. 

Italy and Poland are threatening to sue. The EU has responded by warning it will tighten exports of any vaccines produced in Europe. 

"Europe invested billions to help develop the world's first COVID-19 vaccines to create a truly global common good," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a televised statement. "Now, the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligations."

New Zealand is banging down the door to get our hands on the vaccine and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins is adamant the brewing global vaccine battle won't slow our campaign. 

"We're doing everything we can at the New Zealand end, but again, we can't necessarily control what's happening around the rest of the world," he said on Wednesday. 

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Photo credit: Newshub

But Royal College of GPs medical director Dr Bryan Betty, formerly top brass at our drug buying agency Pharmac, says we could be affected.

"The possibility exists that could disrupt supply and it's just something we need to consider in terms of the vaccination programme," he told Newshub. 

"The potential for delay is always there. It's the same with any vaccination programme. We saw that with flu vaccinations last year - that potentially could happen and we just need to address it.

"New Zealand is at the end of a very long supply chain for medication around the world. There are medication shortages all the time in New Zealand which are dealt with very effectively by organisations such as Pharmac.

"You'd expect them to be working hard on ensuring the supply chain for the vaccine is kept intact."

Royal College of GPs' Dr Bryan Betty.
Royal College of GPs' Dr Bryan Betty. Photo credit: Newshub

While the Government insists we're at the front of the queue, we're COVID-19-free while other countries are facing ever-growing death tolls - the vaccine is needed there more urgently. 

"That is the reality," said Hipkins. "That is what is happening now. It's very difficult on humanitarian grounds to argue against that."

When we do get the vaccine, jabbing the population is expected to take up to a year. The minimum aim is to achieve 70 percent vaccination for it to be effective. 

A Ministry of Health survey conducted in December found about 70 percent of Kiwis would be willing to get a vaccine, 20 percent were hesitant and would need extra convincing through a good information campaign, while up to10 percent said they would not be vaccinated. 

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

"Whilst 70 percent is a figure, it would be a minimum," said Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. "Our aspiration is way higher than that. We would be aspiring to get up around 90 percent."

Convincing the hesitant has been a crucial element of Australia's just-released ad campaign.

"COVID-19 vaccines are being assessed carefully by independent clinical experts," the ad says. 

New Zealand will have one too - but not just yet. 

"We're intending to roll out the campaign before we start making vaccines available to the public," said Hipkins.