ACT's Brooke van Velden accuses Government of 'dropping the ball' on antiviral COVID-19 medication

ACT has accused the Government of "dropping the ball" on antiviral medication to treat COVID-19, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says talks have been underway "for some time". 

Australia has purchased 300,000 courses of the promising antiviral drug molnupiravir from drugmaker Merck Sharp & Dohme, which if cleared by regulators, would be the first pill to treat COVID-19.

The United States-based pharmaceutical company said the experimental treatment halved deaths and hospitalisations among COVID-19 patients who took it within five days of developing symptoms.

ACT's deputy leader and health spokesperson Brooke van Velden says the antiviral medication should be allowed in New Zealand once it has been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

White House chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci said on Friday the FDA will review data on the antiviral medication "as quickly as they possibly can" in hopes of issuing an emergency use authorisation, like it did with vaccinations. 

In a statement released on Tuesday, van Velden said the Government "drops the ball on treatments, like it did with vaccinations". 

"New drugs and COVID therapies are approved and coming on the market all the time. Once they have had approval from the likes of the FDA, New Zealand should just get on with it," van Velden said.

"Just because New Zealand dropped the ball on the vaccination rollout, it doesn't mean we can't come back in the second half and get this thing under control."

National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop has also urged the Government to buy antiviral treatments as soon as possible. 

"There are a range of next-generation game changing Covid treatments being developed like molnupiravir, ronapreve and sotrovimab but New Zealand is falling behind other countries in securing supplies of these exciting treatments," Bishop says.  

"The United States has committed to purchasing 1.7 million doses of molnupiravir alone should it receive FDA approval.

"These are treatments for people who have already got COVID-19 or who are showing symptoms. Our first line of defence is of course vaccination but there is no doubt that New Zealand will want to access these treatments, which are increasingly being approved by regulators worldwide.

"A monoclonal antibody treatment called ronapreve has been approved for use in the United Kingdom and is licensed for emergency use in more than 20 countries, including the US, European Union, Canada, Japan, and Switzerland.

"New Zealand has not purchased any while the EU has bought 55,000 doses."

ACT deputy leader and health spokesperson Brooke van Velden.
ACT deputy leader and health spokesperson Brooke van Velden. Photo credit: Getty Images

But Ardern told reporters on Tuesday the Government's medicine regulator Medsafe had been in talks with the pharmaceutical company "for some time". 

"Of course, for commercial reasons, we don't get into any more detail than that on that negotiation, but those talks do predate the more recent announcements you've seen publicly around the success of that drug in clinical trials," Ardern said. 

ACT has also been calling on the Government to order boosters shots for New Zealanders. 

"What's its policy on procuring booster shots? Because we know it's been a very long delay getting, you know, supply," leader David Seymour said in Parliament last month. "We don't want to get in the same problem with booster shots."

Ardern said the Government has ordered enough doses of Pfizer to cater for additional shots. 

"Taking into account the number of vaccines we have ordered would actually serve us for the purposes of boosters, were they to be approved, particularly given we've ordered enough for New Zealand's entire population, and those aged under 12 if they are approved in the future are likely to have a paediatric dosing which would be a third of the usual dose of an adult. 

"That provides us already with additional shots that could be used for boosters, were they to be approved. 

"In addition, we are in talks with the pharmaceutical companies we may choose to purchase from to ensure that if they are approved that we are able to secure those vaccines in a timely way."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield giving a COVID-19 update.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield giving a COVID-19 update. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ardern couldn't provide a timeline.

"That's not something I can answer. It's something that we use a group of expert advisors to give us their perspective. I know that they have been reviewing the evidence out of Pfizer and looking internationally at the evidence.

"You'll have seen there's a limited number of countries that are using boosters, and where they are, they've often been for those in older age groups. 

"I don't think I'd be inclined to call an additional dose for immunocompromised a booster because that's just used to provide the usual immunity of someone who would otherwise require two shots." 

Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay agreed. 

"That's right, in that setting it would be a third dose."

The only currently available treatment for COVID-19 in New Zealand is the Medsafe-approved Pfizer vaccine. 

More than 2 million people have now received two doses of the vaccine, representing 48 percent of eligible people aged 12 and over, while 79 percent of people have received one dose. 

Ardern said vaccination has proven to be the best protection against COVID-19, given only 3 percent of cases in the current Delta outbreak have received a jab. 

"Delta is literally bypassing vaccinated people."