Donald Trump has promised it’ll be free. So has Justin Trudeau. But the New Zealand government hasn’t yet decided whether we’ll have to pay for a Covid-19 vaccine.
There’s a glimmer of hope in recent announcements from drugmakers Moderna and Pfizer that their vaccines are highly effective at preventing Covid-19 – but the pandemic’s end might first require New Zealanders to reach for their bank cards.
With officials now working out how and when vaccines will eventually be distributed across the country, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said it’s still undecided whether doses will be free. “We have not made those decisions at this point,” he told reporters.
Some groups that are less at-risk might be asked to pay for a possible vaccine. There’s a precedent with flu shots, a vaccine that saves lives and that the government asks people to get annually, but still charges for. The decision will come down to what coronavirus vaccines are selected and who gets them first, said Hipkins.
“We’re working through a sequencing, bearing in mind that we’re potentially going to have access to a number of different vaccines at any given time and limited amounts of each of those vaccines,” the minister added.
The position being taken by prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s government is at odds with a number of countries around the world, including that of the United States, which has promised that a vaccine ending the global pandemic will be provided free of charge.
A coming age of vaccine diplomacy beckons as countries grapple for access to doses and battles occur within those countries about who should come first and when.
Any eventual vaccine will not be cheap. The eventual cost of vaccinating the country has been disclosed only at “hundreds of millions” by the government.
New Zealand has so far announced $64 million to support a number of domestic and international vaccine efforts, including research and new manufacturing capacity. Nearly half that funding has gone to a global research initiative called Covax, which would allow New Zealand to buy enough vaccines for half the country’s population, as well as doses for Tokelau, the Cook Islands and Niue. For the other half of the population, the country has been signing advance purchase agreements, including one for 1.5 million doses of Pfizer’s recently announced vaccine.
Hipkins would not confirm whether the country is in talks with Moderna. He said that even revealing the existence of talks could breach an internationally “highly commercially sensitive process”.
Early indications are that Moderna’s vaccine could be more effective, at 94.5% compared to the 90% disclosed by Pfizer. It would also be simpler to roll out. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, which could cause significant logistical hurdles because it must be kept in ultra-cold storage of -70 degrees Celsius, the Moderna vaccine could be stored in a regular home freezer.
National health spokesperson Shane Reti said ideally the vaccine should be free to New Zealanders, but he wasn’t prepared to make that call definitively. “We’d need to see the details. We understand vaccines can be expensive, so we’d need to see the details on that,” he said.
Would he be prepared to take out his bank card and pay? That would depend on how the government plans to allocate the vaccine, he answered.
The minister’s disclosure that individuals could be asked to pay for a Covid-19 vaccine came as a surprise to Helen Petousis-Harris. The University of Auckland professor and vaccinologist sits on the advisory group appointed by the government to provide advice on an eventual Covid-19 vaccine.
“We’ve never charged for a vaccine under these circumstances. Everything I’ve heard is that it would be available for free,” she said.
Despite fears at the start of 2020 that there would be vaccine nationalism, where countries seek to hoard doses for their own populations, that hasn’t happened and diplomacy seems to be working, she said. Part of the reason for that is a broad acknowledgement that it would be counter-productive not to get the vaccines to as many people as possible. Even New Zealand, with its low number of cases, will still get access to shots because in the absence of a vaccine, it would present a risk of people who could get sick.
“Say you hoarded all the vaccine and vaccinated as much of your population as possible, then you’d like to go on overseas vacation or for business and you see a lot of Covid out there,” she said. “You have to think of this as a global issue.”