Covid-19 Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine: New Zealand government gives formal approval

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New Zealand authorities have given formal approval for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to be administered to those 16 years and older once stocks arrive in the country.

Hipkins says they are aiming to vaccinate border workers and their closest contacts within days of the first shipment arriving.

The vaccines will be free.

The authorisation by Cabinet ministers comes after the vaccine was given provisional approval by Medsafe last week. An expert panel has since made recommendations on who should be eligible for the jab.

Cabinet has deemed the vaccine “suitable for use” for nearly everyone except tamariki and rangatahi younger than 16.

People under the age of 16 have been shut out for now as they have not yet been included in clinical trials. Pregnant women are being advised to first discuss the risks and benefits with their GP, but lactating women have been given the all-clear.

Patients receiving the cancer drugs Keytruda, Opdivo, Yervoy, or Tecentriq have been directed not to receive the vaccine.

In what he said would be the first of a series of regular updates on Covid-19 vaccines, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the official approval was “a further greenlight” on the road to roll-out, with information campaigns to begin from next week.

“As part of our portfolio, we have secured up to 750,000 courses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine through an Advance Purchase Agreement, and we are seeking a further small allocation through the COVAX Facility,” Hipkins said.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

“When the first batch of vaccine arrives, we will be ready to go. We will start vaccinating our border workers with within days of arrival and then the people they live with.

“People such as cleaners, the nurses who undertake health checks in MIQ, security staff, customs and border officials, airline staff and hotel workers will be among the first to get the vaccine.”

Hipkins said as soon as the first shipment is on the way to New Zealand he would make the public aware, and he was not going to put a timeframe on it yet but it could be February or March.

The vaccines would not all arrive in one shipment, he said, but rather in smaller batches over a series of weeks.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield also revealed there had been three new cases of Covid-19 detected in managed isolation facilities since yesterday’s update.

Dr Bloomfield said the vaccinations in the clinical trials have seen mild to moderate side effects like fatigue and muscle aches.

“We haven’t seen anyone have severe effects … the rates are very much in line with other vaccines,” he said.

Ashley Bloomfield

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Vaccine rollout and management

Hipkins said work was also under way to develop the comprehensive new National Immunisation Solution or NIS.

He said it was available to use now and vaccinators will be trained on using that shortly. Once implemented, health care workers would be able to record vaccinations in that system.

Over time the goal would be to enable members of the public to be able to digitally access their own vaccination records.

The government has repeatedly said it expected the first batch of vaccines to arrive in New Zealand by the end of March, but has declined to give a firm date.

The vaccine had also been assessed and signed off by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), Hipkins said.

“All these steps can provide further assurances to the New Zealand public that this vaccine is safe to use.”

Medsafe was already considering applications from AstraZeneca and Janssen and had begun engagement with Novavax, he said.

He said similar approval processes are being followed with all three of those other vaccine candidates.

Final checks on seven of the ultra-low temperature freezers will be completed in Auckland by the end of the week and the remaining two freezers have been moved to Christchurch to support the roll-out there.

Special containers had also been purchased to transport the vaccines around New Zealand at ultra-low or cold-chain temperatures, Hipkins said.

An extra 2000-3000 fulltime or fulltime-equivalent vaccinators to be trained and available around New Zealand.

So far more than 1800 people had registered their interest to be involved, with more than 2000 people already trained as provisional vaccinators.

Hipkins said they’re ready to complete the Covid-19 training when that’s available.

Dr Bloomfield also highlighted the role New Zealand plays in providing health support to Pacific countries via the Pacific Health Corridors programme, including the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.

“[They] will be offered access to vaccine through the vaccine portfolio that we have negotiated with the four providers,” he said.

“We’re currently in discussions with each of those six countries that are part of the health corridors programme to see what their specific needs are both in terms of vaccine and also wider support for their vaccination programmes.

“We’re also working closely with our Australian counterparts and other partners include the WHO and GAVI to ensure countries in the wider Pacific have the support they need to run successful immunisation programmes.”

Warning about scams and misinformation

Hipkins said it was important that New Zealanders could access trustworthy and reliable information. He said they were working to combat scams, and CERT NZ was working to stop scammers in their tracks.

“At no point will you ever be asked to pay to secure your place in the queue for a vaccine,” Hipkins said.

He said any communication about the vaccine would come directly from the Ministry of Health.

“If you receive emails out of the blue … it is likely to be a scam.”

Facebook has told the government it will remove false claims about Covid-19, Covid-19 vaccines, Hipkins said, and Google would be running a worldwide campaign to promote authoritive information on its search systems, including about New Zealand’s vaccinations.

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