NZ gets in line for Covid-19 vaccine

The Government is allocating major money to ensure New Zealand can access a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine as soon as it becomes available

In an announcement vague on details because of commercial sensitivity, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods say the Government has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to make sure New Zealand is among the first nations to get access to a Covid-19 vaccine.

All of the money allocated by Cabinet comes from the Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

"Since day [one] of this global pandemic, the Government has gone hard and early in our plan to eliminate the virus and work in as many ways as possible to secure a vaccine as soon as it’s available," Ardern said.

"I’ve been talking to a range of world leaders about global vaccine development, including Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and Scott Morrison. We are working particularly closely with Australia to ensure we are connected to all parts of vaccine development, distribution and use, as well as our Pacific neighbours to elevate their voices."

Woods said the funding would allow New Zealand to guarantee access to the most promising vaccines.

"Our approach to obtaining a Covid-19 vaccine is different to how we’d usually operate, but these are extraordinary times that warrant new and innovative approaches being used. We need to act early to secure our ability to purchase promising vaccine candidates and are already in conversation with a number of vaccine providers," she said.

Woods and Ardern both emphasised the importance of international cooperation to find a vaccine and ensure everyone has equal access to it. Woods said the New Zealand effort was "well-connected" with Australia's.

"As the World Health Organisation says, vaccine nationalism only helps the virus. Collaboration is our strength and when we find a vaccine, it must be available to everyone."

"We are actively working together to get access to a vaccine for our two countries and our Pacific neighbours. Global cooperation is crucial because as long as one country or community is at risk, we are all at risk," she said.

"As the World Health Organisation says, vaccine nationalism only helps the virus. Collaboration is our strength and when we find a vaccine, it must be available to everyone," Ardern added.

The announcement comes after a late May launch of New Zealand's official vaccine strategy. This was funded to the tune of $37 million, some of which has now been allocated.

Of the original pot, $15m has been sent to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) Investors’ Council for global research efforts and $3m will go towards the New Zealand biotech company BioCell, providing the potential for domestic manufacture of a vaccine.

The BioCell funding could allow the company to produce as many as 100 million doses of a future vaccine, Woods said. This would be done as part of a licensing agreement - in order to ensure New Zealand and the Pacific have access to a vaccine, New Zealand has had to promise to manufacture doses not just for the domestic market but for overseas audiences as well.

Another $10m has been allocated to a new alliance of New Zealand research institutions, called Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand - Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, made up of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington.

"There are significant advantages of a national development and screening programme. Along with the obvious efficiencies, it gives us the scale needed to engage globally - with organisations like CEPI and big pharmaceutical companies - and will help develop local biotech capability to ensure we’re best placed for future pandemics," James Ussher, an associate professor at the University of Otago and the new science director for the Vaccine Alliance, said.

Graham Le Gros, the alliance's new programme director and the director of the Malaghan Institute, said there were promising vaccine candidates being developed in New Zealand and elsewhere. All would be put through a rigorous screening process, he said.

"What we’re looking at is an international landscape where Covid-19 vaccines are being developed rapidly for an emergency response, while others – the second generation vaccines – are being designed with our increasing knowledge of immunity to SARS-CoV-2," he said.

"These are ones, for example, that will provide lasting immunity, protect older and more vulnerable people, and can be scaled up and distributed easily and cheaply. At this stage, the more vaccines being researched and developed the better – it gives us choices."

Le Gros said countries that hadn't managed to eliminate Covid-19 might take a first-generation vaccine that is less safe and that stimulates a weaker immune response. New Zealand would be willing to wait for a vaccine that is entirely safe and that fosters long-term immunity. His best guess, rough estimate timeline for the rollout of a vaccine in New Zealand was two years, but Ardern cautioned that scientists have given her a wide range of different answers, including sometime next year.

"Some of these vaccines are the most minimal thing you can do to just make the immune response to make some kind of immunity, so for disease - it doesn't even stop infection. But the later vaccines which we're working on right now really stimulate the immune response like bloody hell," he said.

"We must be patient, we must believe in what we're trying to do here, we must believe in the financial instruments which have been put in place to try and really work with the world and work with ourselves. It'll be as fast as possible."

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