Friday, 15 Oct 2021

Covid 19 coronavirus: Will NZ be left high and dry in global movement for vaccinated countries?

“All of that is just a big, fat question mark at this point.”

That’s Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins’ retort to suggestions that New Zealand is being left behind in what is slowly becoming the vaccinated western world.

His comments follow UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanting to pilot a Covid passport that takes into account whether you are vaccinated and have had a recent negative test.

The UK also wants a traffic light system for when overseas travel resumes, where travellers can return from “green” countries – low rates of infection and high rates of vaccination – without having to quarantine.

It has led to questions about a global vaccinated travel zone where New Zealand might be late to the party.

About 12 per cent of Canada, 46 per cent of the UK, and 30 per cent of the US have received at least one vaccine dose. Just over 1 per cent of New Zealand’s population had, according to the latest update on Wednesday, while Australia sits at about 2.5 per cent.

But Hipkins said there was no way to tell if New Zealand was being left behind, given how little is known about how vaccines affect transmission, or their efficacy towards variants of the virus.

“Take the UK, for example. Yes, they’ve got a good way through the population with a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but it’ll be some time before they get to work their way through the second dose,” Hipkins said in an interview before the Easter break.

“And some of the studies I’ve seen suggest it’s not particularly effective with the South African variant.”

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine found the South African variant – B.1.351 – showed “complete immune escape” for the AstraZeneca vaccine; for the Pfizer vaccine, immunity declined by a factor of 6.5.

And scientists say it remains unclear whether someone who’s been vaccinated can still pass on Covid-19.

“You have to think about what we’re comparing,” Hipkins adds.

“People see on the news that the UK is opening up again. But they’re opening up from complete lockdown. They’re allowing themselves to do the things we’ve been doing all along.”

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said New Zealand’s vaccine roll-out so far was “very positive”.

“There are benefits of being in the middle of the queue and not the front. You can only go so far with trials and lab work. How they work in the field will ultimately tell us how they work in terms of stopping transmission of the virus.”

He said we will also get to see how the vaccine works against SARS-CoV-2 variants, the virus that causes Covid-19.

New Zealand was still slightly behind its vaccination schedule, hitting 95 per cent of the delivery model mark.

Australia was ahead of New Zealand partly because it was using AstraZeneca, Hipkins said.

“We made the decision to not go with AstraZeneca, and that means that we have to wait a little bit longer to get the bulk supply of our vaccines.

“The mRNA vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – still probably have the greatest efficacy across population groups and across variants of the virus. It’s still early, but that suggests Pfizer is still the right decision.”

Pfizer is considered to be 95 per cent effective; AstraZeneca is 79 per cent effective against symptomatic infection and 100 per cent effective against severe illness and hospitalisation.

Pfizer has also recently announced encouraging results in trials for 12 to 15 year olds – and the Government can still use the other vaccines that it has purchase agreements with – though it might not need them in the volumes it has pre-ordered.

Putting all of our eggs into the Pfizer basket, Hipkins said, also meant that the roll-out avoided having to organise multiple vaccines across different population groups.

Other countries’ vaccination rates mattered mainly because new and potentially more deadly variants were more likely to emerge in places where Covid was rampant and vaccination rates were low.

“Ultimately, if you want vaccines to be effective, the faster you can slow down the mutations and the variants, the better,” Hipkins said.

“That’s why everybody’s vaccination rates around the world actually matter to New Zealand. It’s not just when we get our vaccinations rolled out.”

He didn’t want to say when he thought global travel for Kiwis might resume except to say that there would be more freedom next year.

“What that looks like at this point, I’m not 100 per cent clear. Global movements are going to be quite different in the next few years to what it was pre-Covid.”

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