Coronavirus: Chris Hipkins says Janssen likely next COVID-19 vaccine to be given approval, AstraZeneca 'slow' to supply data

The Janssen COVID-19 vaccine is likely to be the next jab given the green light by New Zealand's medicines regulator, according to Chris Hipkins.

Wednesday marked another milestone in New Zealand's response to the COVID-19 pandemic with border and managed isolation workers getting their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The Government also released a new graph showing that by July, we could be administering nearly 250,000 doses a week.

Hipkins, the COVID-19 Response Minister, has been clear that our vaccination programme timeline is dependent on when doses are delivered to New Zealand. The Government has signed a deal with Pfizer-BioNTech securing enough shots for our entire population, with most expected in the second half of the year when the general population begins getting vaccinated.

However, Aotearoa has also signed advanced agreements with other vaccine manufacturers, including Janssen, Novavax and AstraZeneca. Hipkins said on Wednesday that these additional vaccines would be important alternatives for the small number of people who are allergic to the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.

He also revealed that the Janssen vaccine is likely to be the next given provisional approval by our medicines regulator, MedSafe. 

"My understanding from the last conversation I had with MedSafe, which was about a week-and-a-half ago, was that the Jansen vaccine was the next one that was the closest to getting over the approval line, still some more work to go there," Hipkins told reporters.

"AstraZeneca has been reasonably slow with providing them with the information that they need."

The minister said two sets of data are required by MedSafe before a vaccine can be given the greenlight.

"One is around the data that is to do with the efficacy and safety of the vaccine, but there is a process also around the approval of the manufacture of the vaccine and at this point, my understanding is that, in terms of AstraZeneca, they haven't been able to supply MedSafe information about where our allocation of vaccines would be manufactured and that is one of the things that they would need to to get vaccine approval."

If the Janssen vaccine gets approval, it is likely to be what is called provisional approval. 

Provisional consent means the pharmaceutical company must meet certain conditions, including supplying more data from its clinical trials around the world as they progress. This will happen at the same time as the vaccine is rolled out.

Provisional approval is not uncommon, according to the Ministry of Health, for instance the annual influenza vaccine is given provisional approval for the same reason.

On Thursday morning, the World Health Organization's (WHO) health agency expert advisory board SAGE publicly approved the Janssen vaccine for international use. The Janssen vaccine was added to the WHO's list of safe and effective emergency tools against COVID-19 last week, becoming the first single-dose vaccine to be added. 

The WHO also came into bat for the AstraZeneca vaccine on Thursday after numerous European countries temporarily suspended its use based on reports of blood clotting in people who had received the vaccine. 

"In extensive vaccination campaigns, it is routine for countries to signal potential adverse events following immunization. This does not necessarily mean that the events are linked to the vaccination itself, but it is good practice to investigate them. It also shows that the surveillance system works and that effective controls are in place."

The WHO said it considers the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine to outweigh the risks and recommended the vaccine continued to be used. 

So far, roughly 27,000 people in New Zealand have been given at least one dose of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. By July, the Government hopes to have roughly 2 million people vaccinated, mostly from frontline worker and priority population groups. The rollout will then be extended to the general public.