Health experts offer speculation about Covid-19 vaccine rollout

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Details of a New Zealand rollout of Covid-19 vaccines are being kept heavily under wraps, and are due to be announced soon.

File: This illustration picture taken in Paris on November 23, 2020 shows a syringe and a bottle reading

File photo.
Photo: AFP

While it has has yet to be approved here, speculation about a possible scheme has already begun – and with trials ramping up around the world, a Covid-19 vaccine could be on our shores early next year.

New Zealand’s hopes are being pinned on two vaccines – Pfizer BioNtech and Janssen – the former having just received authorisation in the UK for rollout.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said today that work to approve a vaccine was under way, but it was preferred that clinicial trials be finished first.

Dr Bryan Betty from the Royal College of General Practioners said doctors would likely be able to order stock through a central repository.

However, that was not without risks – this year, GPs faced frustrating waits for influenza vaccines because of distribution problems.

“There can’t be a repeat of what’s happened with flu,” he said.

Dr Bryan Betty of Porirua Union and Community Health.

Dr Bryan Betty
Photo: RNZ / Karen Brown

“We would expect there to be … discussions with the ministry and the government over this to ensure that any rollout was organised, it actually targeted and reached the people it needed to reach, and that general practice was supported and funded to carry out that vaccination.”

Vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, who is also part of the Science and Technical Advisory Group for Covid-19 vaccine, thought that was a fair concern, but said high-level planning was happening.

“We had the measles play out and MMR play out and then the flu play out not very well, but I think we’re going to see something very different this time and the logistics and the organisation going into this are incredible.”

Auckland University's Helen Petousis-Harris.

Auckland University’s Helen Petousis-Harris.
Photo: University of Auckland

In the UK, vaccine priority is being given to elderly residents and staff in care homes, health staff and people over the age of 80.

Dr Sue Crengle from the University of Otago, who is also on the technical advisory group, reckoned a similar priority would be introduced here.

“To some extent, who our priority groups are is going to change depending on what’s happening in the country,” she said.

“So at the moment, pretty much all of our cases are at border and managed isolation and quarantine. Everyone working at the border has to be a priority group.”

Their immediate families would also be a priority, alongside health workers, patients, the elderly, Māori and Pasifika, as well as people living with long-term conditions.

Crengle said it was important the system had all it needed to roll out the vaccine effectively.

“Making sure we have enough of the right needles and syringes, that we’ve got enough of a workforce, all those kinds of things, so we can roll it out as smoothly as possible,” she said.

To date, the Ministry of Health has purchased nine large freezers that can hold more than 1.5 million doses of vaccines like Pfizer-BioNtech, which needs to be stored at about -70 degrees celsius.

The freezers are due to arrive in the country by the end of this year, and will most likely be installed in Auckland with some in the South Island.

In a statement, the Ministry said it was still working through what would be needed for distribution throughout the country.

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