Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine ready to be administered in Colorado in January (Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

New Zealand’s Covid-19 vaccine programme explained

A surprisingly large number of people could be getting a Covid jab within the next few weeks – but don’t go marking it in your diary just yet. 

There’s light at the end of the tunnel as New Zealand’s medical regulator gave the thumbs up to a Covid-19 vaccine yesterday. With the jab from Pfizer and BioNTech now approved for use, the country’s vaccine timetable is slowly becoming clearer.

Here’s what we know so far:

When can I get the vaccine?

July or later.

Don’t rush to your calendar to mark it down, but if you’re the statistically average New Zealander, 37 years old, healthy and living somewhere near a city, you’ll get a vaccine after the immunisation programme is expanded to the general population in the second half of the year.

However, there’s a surprisingly large group that could start getting jabs within a few weeks.

Who gets the vaccine first?

Without much fanfare, the government has unveiled that the first cohort of people who will get a Covid-19 vaccine has grown enormously. It isn’t just limited to the 10,000 or so people who work at the border any more – but they’ll still be at the front of the line.

New Zealand’s first shipment of the Pfizer jab will be 450,000 doses, which is enough for 225,000 people. That’s a pretty large group that will cover everyone at the border, everyone who works with them, their families and the country’s airline crews.

There will also be thousands of jabs set aside for what director general of health Ashley Bloomfield called “a significant number of people who are at the highest risk”.

Based on evidence from overseas, that’s people with medical conditions like diabetes, respiratory diseases, heart diseases and “frail older people”, according to the doctor. That’s not all people in aged care homes, but older people who need hospital-level or home care. 

When does the first group get it?

March, hopefully.

This is one of the most contentious questions facing the government right now.

New Zealand has a deal with Pfizer that requires the 450,000 doses to be here before the end of March. Pfizer has promised they’ll be here in February. The Ministry of Health says everything is looking good, despite Pfizer missing delivery targets around the world and generally creating a wave of frustration across Europe and North America.

In total, we’re supposed to get 1.5 million doses from Pfizer this year.

Can anyone not get the Pfizer vaccine?

The approval from Medsafe is pretty broad, specifying everyone over the age of 16 can get it.

That doesn’t preclude the possibility that other vaccines will see strict limits. A number of governments have stopped giving the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 65.

What other vaccines will New Zealand be getting?

The government has signed deals for a lot more vaccines than there are people in the country. It’s a bit of an insurance policy in case one of them doesn’t work or gets delayed. It’s a global pandemic, so the unexpected can happen.

In total, in addition to Pfizer’s vaccine, New Zealand has 10 million doses coming from Janssen, 7.6 million from AstraZeneca and 10.7 million from Novavax. That’s enough vaccine for 15 million people, about three times the population of Aotearoa. Some will be headed to the Pacific Islands. Most won’t be wasted, they’ll just go to poorer countries that need them.

When are we getting those other vaccines?

That’s slightly less good news. It looks like Pfizer might be our only shot for a while.

Medsafe only received an application from AstraZeneca this week to approve its vaccine. It’s way too early to talk about when that’ll get approved. “Until I really get a sense of what data came in with that application, then we’ll be in a better position to talk about timelines,” Medsafe group manager Chris James said on Wednesday.

Janssen has been submitting data to the health agency “and it’s been going well”, according to James. A regulatory decision could come in the early part of the second quarter – that’s April or May.

There’s no sign of life yet from Novavax, which is the country’s largest order.

Once we have all four vaccines, do I get to choose the one I’d like?

Hell no. As Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins put it on Thursday, “it’s not like you just get to rock on up and take your pick”. 

Health officials will figure out which vaccines work best with each age group and you’ll pretty much be assigned a jab. As an example, that AstraZeneca vaccine that might not be best for people over 65 also seems to be pretty swell at stopping onwards transmission of the virus, according to new evidence. That sounds like a good vaccine for frisky younger people.

So I get two doses and this is over?

One of the most startling moments from Hipkins on Thursday, near the end of his increasingly daily press conferences, was the revelation that the government is preparing for ongoing “maintenance doses” of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Once we’re through this first wave of vaccinations we’re likely to need a vaccine maintenance programme where we will be purchasing regular ongoing Covid-19 vaccines just as we do with influenza,” he said.

Going to the doctor’s office for a Covid-19 jab might become a regular part of life.




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