As New Zealand’s vaccine effort picks up speed, there are lessons to be taken from countries that are more rapidly vaccinating their populations. Justin Giovannetti reports.
With the global vaccination marathon against Covid-19 accelerating in the second half of 2021, new countries are emerging as leaders after overcoming supply issues and slow starts.
Topping the effort now is Canada, with nearly 71% of eligible adults having received at least one jab, while the United Kingdom is at 69% and most of western Europe not far behind. The United States, despite an early lead and oversupply of vaccine, has tumbled down the leaderboard.
The US has quickly turned into a story of two countries, one that’s more progressive and heavily vaccinated, another that’s more conservative and sceptical, largely eschewing the vaccine. More aggressive variants of the virus have taken hold in unvaccinated areas.
Anthony Fauci, the US president’s chief medical advisor, has cited the lack of partisan divide in Canada as one of the keys to that country’s success. New Zealand’s partisan divide, if one exists, is that both National and Act have demanded a more aggressive vaccination programme than the Labour government’s current one.
However, there’s one important lesson that New Zealand can take from both the Canadian and British approach. It’s one that could accelerate the effort here, as the vaccine programme now expands to the general public for the first time.
Both those countries have focused on getting first doses into adult arms while extending the three-week gap between injections that is recommended by many vaccine companies. According to Peter McIntyre, a health professor at the University of Otago, New Zealand should consider a similar route.
The decision in Britain and Canada meant many adults waited months for a second dose, but the first shot provided enough immunity to shield the wider population from the worst of subsequent outbreaks. The Canadian programme in particular got off to a slow start, but rocketed up in May and June. During that delay, there were lockdowns as outbreaks continued. With supply now readily available, more than half of all adults in Canada and the UK are now fully vaccinated.
The result of that has been a gradual reopening in both countries. While the British situation has been complicated by the presence of the more infectious delta variant of Covid-19, fully vaccinated Canadians can now travel internationally and don’t need to isolate on arrival back home. Fully vaccinated tourists will start arriving, isolation-free, in the country next month.
New research from Oxford University has shown that the longer wait between jabs might be beneficial, with higher immunity being detected in people who waited 10 weeks.
Jacinda Ardern will be getting her second jab on Thursday, nearly six weeks after her first shot. According to her office, the prime minister’s delay isn’t a sign of a change in policy, just of trouble fitting the visit into her schedule.
Ardern will be one of the rare New Zealanders not adhering to the guideline. Most clinics book second visits before you get your first jab, faithfully sticking to a 21 day gap. About 19% of the New Zealand population has had a jab; about two-thirds of those people are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The overall figure is one of the lowest amongst rich countries.
The argument for a faster rollout of the first dose is across the Tasman, according to McIntyre, who recently returned from Sydney and spoke from managed isolation in Auckland. The delta variant has plunged New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, into extended lockdown and closed the travel bubble with New Zealand for at least two months.
“Speaking to colleagues in Australia, it makes a huge amount of sense to get as many doses out as quickly as we can,” said McIntyre.
“There’s this strict adherence to the 21 day delay in New Zealand, which made sense when they started with the border workers and wanted to make them as solidly immune as possible. But as we move into young groups and data is coming saying that waiting for the later dose makes it better, a longer wait might be a good approach to take,” he said.
Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins has so far rejected the suggestion of a longer gap.
With modelling from Te Pūnaha Matatini suggesting that over 90% of the population will need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, the focus will shift to ensuring as many people as possible get a jab once the country’s programme gets underway.
While some places internationally have turned to lotteries to increase uptake, others have taken a more punitive approach. France now has more adults vaccinated than the US. In part, that’s due to a government requirement of proof of vaccination in order to enter many public venues. A number of airlines have also indicated they won’t take unvaccinated passengers.
The New Zealand government expects that any adult who wants a vaccine should be able to do so before the end of the year. After months of constrained supply, the country is expecting larger deliveries of the Pfizer jab in the coming weeks.
An earlier version of this article linked to an unrelated study owing to an editing error. Apologies.