Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine only for New Zealanders 16 and over, plan for ad campaign revealed

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will only be given to Kiwis 16 years and over and advertising campaigns will begin next week, after the Government officially approved its use in New Zealand. 

The green light for use of the vaccine follows the approval given by New Zealand's medicine regulator Medsafe last week, clearing the way for frontline workers to be vaccinated after 750,000 doses arrive in New Zealand next month. 

Following Medsafe's provisional approval, the COVID-19 Vaccine Technical Advisory Group (CVTAG) made recommendations on the 'decision to use', which the Government endorsed on Wednesday. 

Since the CVTAG does not have safety evidence to support the use of Pfizer for children aged under 16, it recommended only using it on people that age and above - same as the US  Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - but this could be reconsidered when more detail is made available.

The CVTAG has also recommended that adequate information is provided about the vaccine, particularly around expected common side effects, such as fever, muscle pain and fatigue. A 30-minute observation period is recommended after the vaccine has been administered.

Patients receiving specific therapies - such as cancer drugs Keytruda and Opdivo, and antibody medicines Yervoy and Tecentriq - should not receive the vaccine. Pregnant women are advised to discuss the risks and benefits of receiving the Pfizer vaccine, but it has been deemed safe for use in women who are lactating. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said Medsafe's provisional approval last week was step one and the Government's 'decision to use' is a further green light on the road to our vaccine rollout. 

"While we've found the 'decision to use' process around this first application to be relatively straightforward, the Government also recognises there will be a huge amount of further detail to consider as the other vaccines in our portfolio of 14.91 million courses go through the Medsafe approval process," he said. 

"Now we've reached the crucial stage of approval for the first vaccine, we are in a much better position to start having a conversation with New Zealanders about how we plan to proceed, recognising the natural questions some will have. Information campaigns will start from next week to support this."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

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.

The Government is seeking a small early allocation of vaccines through COVAX, a global initiative working to ensure COVID-19 vaccines reach those in greatest need. 

"When the first batch of vaccine arrives, we will be ready to go. We will start vaccinating our border workers with within days of arrival and then the people they live with," said Hipkins. 

"People such as cleaners, the nurses who undertake health checks in [managed isolation and quarantine], security staff, customs and border officials, airline staff and hotel workers will be among the first to get the vaccine."

Hipkins said while vaccination of border and other frontline workers takes place, the Government will continue to receive advice from officials on the other vaccines in its portfolio. He said Medsafe is in regular conversations with AstraZeneca and Janssen and has begun engagement with Novavax. A similar "rigorous" approval process is being followed.

New Zealand will also play a role in ensuring the Pacific Islands get their share of vaccinations, those participating in the Polynesian Health Corridors programme.

"These countries, which include the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu, will be given access to the New Zealand vaccine portfolio," Hipkins said. 

"There is still a long way to go but as a country we've made strong and significant progress against COVID-19 since it first emerged as a serious global threat about 12 months ago. The Government will leave nothing to chance to ensure that progress continues."

The Government's approval of Pfizer comes after criticism from the Opposition over Hipkins' statement in November that New Zealand was at the front of the vaccine queue - despite 100 other countries already rolling vaccines out.  

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in Parliament on Tuesday that she stood by Hipkins' remarks, because the Government was able to secure vaccine agreements early. 

She says the need for vaccines in New Zealand is not as urgent as in other countries, where coronavirus-related deaths are high, such as the UK where more than 100,000 people have died. 

Other countries have also approved use of vaccines under emergency, whereas New Zealand has approved Pfizer by going through the full approval process.