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A vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
A vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

PoliticsFebruary 3, 2021

New Zealand approves Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, first jabs expected next month

A vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
A vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Jacinda Ardern calls 2021 the ‘year of the vaccine’ and New Zealand now has one it can use. Justin Giovannetti reports from the Beehive.

New Zealand has given the green light to its first Covid-19 vaccine, with Medsafe announcing provisional approving for a jab from Pfizer and BioNTech that has become a cornerstone of the global immunisation effort.

The first shipments of the vaccine, which will now face no legal hurdles at the border, are expected in the country before the end of March. New Zealand has 1.5 million doses on order for the jab, which has shown 95% effectiveness in trials.

First in line for vaccination will be border workers, a group which includes all the staff in managed isolation facilities, their families, as well as airline staff. This relatively small group is expected to be fully vaccinated within two to three weeks.

Medsafe’s approval, which came months after health regulators in North America and Europe gave emergency authorisations to the jab, was informed by more up-to-date scientific data, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said today during a stop in Northland.

“Approval has been a very carefully considered and robust process, with safety the key priority,” she said.

The provisional approval used by the health regulator is the same authority it uses for the annual flu vaccine, when data from full trials over a number of years isn’t possible. “We can have confidence in their decision,” Ardern added.

The country plans to begin large-scale jabs in the second half of the year. The health ministry will decide in the coming weeks which age ranges should be vaccinated first, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said in a statement.

The Pfizer vaccine, which can cause significant logistical issues because of its need to be stored below -70C, has run into production delays in recent weeks. European authorities have scrambled to block exports of the vaccines, as the manufacturer has failed to make expected deliveries around the world.

New Zealand also has over 10 million more doses of different vaccines on order from AstraZeneca and Novovax that Medsafe is also looking at.

Ardern said that while she was confident New Zealand’s roll-out would not be affected by delays in distribution and the disputes over primacy for receipt abroad, “vaccine nationalism” was a big concern. “The world just can’t afford for that to happen,” she told reporters.

It’s unclear how Pfizer’s production issues will impact deliveries to New Zealand. There have been some muted sparks in recent weeks between New Zealand and Australia over the projected rollouts of the vaccines. Both are in similar situations internationally in terms of infections and both their health regulators were working together on approvals.

However, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced early this year that he expected jabs to start in his country in late February, a month ahead of New Zealand’s timetable. Hipkins and the government faced repeated questions about why New Zealand had slipped behind, questions that Hipkins directed, with growing irritation, to Australian authorities who were supposed to be on the same timetable.

“We expect the first Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines will arrive in New Zealand by the end of the first quarter, but we are making sure everything is in place in case there is an earlier arrival,” Hipkins said in a statement today.

New Zealand has stuck by March, while Australia’s leaders are aiming for February. Once the first jabs are delivered on the Tasman, it’ll be clear if one side was overpromising or the other wasn’t being ambitious enough.

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