New Zealand’s ‘go hard, go early’ strategy to tackle Covid-19 has garnered praise from around the world and eliminated local transmission of the virus. But the slow roll-out of vaccines exposes populations to unnecessary risks and threatens to delay economic recovery, critics warn.
Wellington plans to start vaccinating frontline workers in April and the general public from July as part of a cautious strategy that avoids the emergency authorization of vaccines pursued by countries in crisis such as the United States. United and the United Kingdom.
Some health experts, however, are urging the government to speed up its vaccination plans because of the risks posed by new strains of the rapidly spreading virus, which have been identified among arrivals overseas.
“New Zealand is in a dilemma. It has a leaky border quarantine system, a growing number of people with rapidly spreading virus strains and a flawed vaccination strategy, ”said Des Gorman, professor of medicine at the University of Auckland.
“They should be looking to speed up the vaccines and my advice would be to close the borders to arrivals from the UK, US and South Africa. “
There are at least 19 cases of variant coronaviruses first identified in the UK or South Africa at quarantine facilities managed in New Zealand for overseas arrivals, according to government data.
Scientists warn these strains pose a significant risk of causing outbreaks that could lead to resumption of community transmission, citing at least seven border failures in New Zealand linked to quarantine facilities since August.
Nick Wilson, professor of public health at the University of Otago Wellington, told the Financial Times the vaccine should now be sped up, flights from the UK and US suspended, and hotel quarantine facilities displaced outside the cities.
“We recently had 31 new cases [of Covid-19] at the border in three days, which poses a serious risk because we know that the hotel quarantine is not fully effective, ”he said.
Last month, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government had signed contracts worth $ 1 billion for the delivery of four vaccines: Oxford / AstraZeneca, BioNTech / Pfizer, Novavax and Janssen. But she insisted Wellington would not rush the clearance or compromise vaccine safety in any way.
“We are moving as quickly as possible, but we also want to make sure that the vaccine is safe for New Zealanders,” Ms. Ardern said.
The Department of Health told the FT last week that its position had not changed, noting that New Zealand was not in the same position as other countries facing Covid emergencies. 19 and community epidemics.
But this week Chris Hipkins, the minister responsible for the response to Covid-19, said the government was looking at whether it could get a small amount of vaccine sooner to vaccinate frontline workers.
The New Zealand medicines regulator would streamline its assessment process and prioritize the assessment of Covid-19 vaccines, without compromising the integrity of the process or the safety of the vaccines, she said.
However, political pressure is increasing on the Labor government. The national opposition party called for a revision of the vaccination strategy, warning that the new, rapidly spreading strains of Covid-19 pose an “unacceptable risk” at the border. He accused the government of appeasement after his initial success by eliminating local transmission of the virus.
“We are miles behind the rest of the world in terms of vaccine deployment,” said Chris Bishop, national party spokesperson on the response to Covid-19.
“We should immediately vaccinate people working at the border. It’s just obvious. “
Mr. Bishop said Australia accelerates vaccine rollout due to concerns about new virus strains. A delay in vaccinations could harm the economy, as the return to normal this year hinged on an effective vaccination policy, he added.
But accelerating vaccination may not be possible, as New Zealand is not due to receive its first shipment of the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine until the end of March. The first batches of AstraZeneca, Novavax and Janssen vaccines will likely arrive in the second quarter of the year, according to Wellington.
“It’s a moot point because we don’t have the material,” said Helen Petousis-Harris, associate professor and vaccinologist at the University of Auckland, when asked why New Zealand doesn’t has not accelerated its deployment.
But she said there were advantages to not being the first in the queue, pointing out that the US, UK and Canada were struggling to meet their vaccination goals.
“If you don’t [vaccination] well, that can lead to loss of public confidence even in your routine immunization programs, ”said Ms. Petousis-Harris.
“We have a situation where a lot of people are hesitant and worried. Making sure people trust the program is really important, and being the first doesn’t necessarily mean you get there. ”
Mr. Hipkins said there was “absolutely no complacency” in the government’s response. He added that authorities were tightening security at the country’s borders by requiring negative pre-flight tests for arrivals.
“We are very aware that New Zealand is currently in a very lucky position without any community cases – not to mention new types of variants – but we are not taking anything for granted,” he said.