Coronavirus: Next Pfizer vaccine shipment due to arrive the same day we run out

Chris Hipkins will be biting his nails next Tuesday, with the next batch of COVID-19 vaccines due to arrive the same day the country's supplies run out. 

More than 20,000 doses are being administered each day during the week, slightly faster than what we've recently been getting from supplier Pfizer. The latest data from the Ministry of Health shows we had 160,0410 doses ready for distribution on June 20, down from more than 300,000 a month before. 

Another 50,000 arrived on Tuesday, but with the rollout running ahead of the Government's schedule, it's going to be tight. 

"We know that by next Tuesday we will run right down - we won't have any left to distribute," the COVID-19 Response Minister told The AM Show on Wednesday. 

"Next Tuesday we do expect to get a reasonably sizable delivery that will allow us to keep the momentum going. What it means is I'll be tracking that shipment from the moment it leaves until the moment it arrives in New Zealand - because if the plane gets delayed, that's a bit of a headache."

To date, that's only happened once. 

"Pfizer has certainly been very reliable in dispatching everything."

Any delay in next week's shipment from Pfizer shouldn't upset things for too long, Hipkins said.

"There will still be vaccines out there, but as practices who do the vaccines start to say, 'Hey, we've run out of stock - we're ready for more,' providing everything arrives on schedule on Tuesday, we should be okay. But if there's any delay, then that starts to get a bit hairy for us for a day or two."

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: The AM Show

Last year, Hipkins said New Zealand would be "front of the queue" for vaccines against COVID-19. At the time, the first were just coming out of their phase III trials. New Zealand signed deals for four of them - made by Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca/Oxford, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen. 

Since then, the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have run into trouble over concerns about side-effects and efficacy against variants, and Novavax is yet to get its candidate out of trials. Meanwhile, the Pfizer vaccine had great success in places where it was rolled out early, particularly Israel. New Zealand then changed its strategy, putting all its eggs in the Pfizer basket - knowing this would delay the rollout. 

Hipkins said New Zealand was at the "front of the queue" - but we initially split our order between four providers.

"Once we made the decision to narrow down to one, increasing our supplies of that one meant we had to wait a little bit longer," he explained. 

"I don't want to sound like a politician here, but what I said is we'll be 'front of the queue' to get access to vaccines as they come to the market, and we certainly have been. We actually made a decision not to use three of the vaccines that we were front of the queue for... and increase our deliveries of Pfizer instead. 

"When we did that back in January, we were clear that middle of the year was when the bulk of our vaccines started to arrive. Australia has made a similar decision to us - they made the decision after we did, and they're waiting until the last quarter of the year to get the bulk of their Pfizer delivery." 

New Zealand hasn't cancelled its order for the other three vaccines, keeping them on standby in case they're needed. 

"The other COVID-19 vaccines we have purchase agreements for may be used in the future, pending the usual review and decision making processes," a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told Newshub earlier this month. "That's one reason we have multiple agreements."

New Zealand has had one of the most successful COVID-19 responses, with only a couple of thousand cases and 26 deaths, out of a world tally of at least 4 million. But we're behind in the race to get vaccinated - ranking around 100th in the world, depending on how you measure it.

Hipkins said it's important other nations get vaccinated too.

"We're still going to be dealing with potential outbreaks for a while, and vaccination rates around the rest of the world are actually really important to us here in New Zealand, and we're seeing some countries that have barely started vaccinating yet. We all, as a global community, need to be concerned about that."