The drive-through vaccination centre at the Trusts Arena last week. (RNZ/Nick Monro)

Possible vaccine slowdown looms as PM seeks to buy more doses

After breaking records in recent days, the Covid-19 vaccination effort is using up the country’s stockpile of jabs quickly, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

The Covid-19 vaccination programme faces the perils of success. After hitting records in recent days with the brakes taken off the vaccine effort, a possible slowdown now looms. It’s a matter of simple arithmetic. There are about 840,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine currently in the country, with new deliveries adding over 300,000 a week. However New Zealand is currently administering about 525,000 doses a week.

The actual maths is a little more difficult. There are questions about how many doses are actually in storage. The number of doses in the delivery pipeline is fluctuating and daily usage is highly variable and increasing. While the crucial date is unclear, the programme could face a serious challenge within weeks unless something changes. The government won’t want to let storage dwindle to zero before acting.

We got here attempting to avoid a delta outbreak. The possible slowdown is partly a reflection of a decision made only days before the delta outbreak was detected to aggressively expand the vaccine programme. For example, someone in their 30s could now get a first dose months earlier than once planned. The rules were also changed to double the gap between jabs as a way of increasing first doses.

The government is trying to secure more doses. While the Beehive is sharing few details, it’s working on a plan to keep the programme going at white-hot levels. More than 90,000 doses were delivered on Friday alone. As Thomas Coughlan reported in the NZ Herald, the options right now include asking Pfizer for earlier shipments or “swapping” jabs with other countries, which could include expanding the programme beyond the Pfizer vaccine. Medsafe has approved the Janssen and AstraZeneca vaccines for use.

We wouldn’t be the first to buy from other countries. While the government’s preference would be to take doses from other countries now and replace them later in a swap, it could also buy them. Australia bought one million doses of vaccine from Poland earlier this month. Stuff reports that the prime minister’s office is nearing a deal to buy jabs from other countries, but Jacinda Ardern is keeping the details close.

The alternative is a slowdown. The prime minister said yesterday that the programme will “manage demand” if efforts to secure more doses fail. Which means vaccinators will deliver only about 350,000 doses weekly, matching the number of new jabs arriving in the country. Responding to questions on Monday, Ardern promised there “won’t be a shortage”. Speaking with RNZ later, Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins said existing bookings won’t be cancelled, but drive-thru and walk-up locations may close. He also said a rationed programme could deliver up to 65,000 doses a day, or 455,000 a week. It’s unclear why he and the prime minister have different numbers.

It’s possible the government delayed deliveries. NewstalkZB has reported that Hipkins may have asked Pfizer several months ago to delay deliveries until October so “we don’t end up with a whole lot sitting in the freezer”. Speaking with RNZ, Hipkins said he had made no such request. He also revealed that the vaccine programme now expects it’ll get four million doses in October, so if it can get through September, it shouldn’t need to worry about shortages. The minister also admitted yesterday morning to Stuff that he’d told reporters months ago that those doses were coming in September, but he got the month wrong.

Could Auckland be a priority for doses? If the government needs to slow the vaccine programme, Ardern said it’ll see if it can keep the volume of doses up in Auckland as the city remains in level four lockdown. However, no promises were made. The government is expecting to announce later this week whether a deal was struck.


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