Baker says NZ 'can't afford to wait' for Pfizer alternatives

Source: 1News

Leading epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says despite Covid-19 vaccine efforts accelerating across New Zealand, "everyone should assume they will be exposed to this virus before Christmas".

It comes as the Government has set a 90 per cent vaccination rate for all DHBs nationwide, but acknowledged the difficulties of Aotearoa's largest city, having been in Alert Level 3 for the past 11 weeks.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern encouraged Aucklanders to strive for the 90 per cent target and said it could move to the newly announced traffic light system earlier than other parts of the country if it achieved it first.

“Auckland will move into red as soon as all three of the Auckland DHB's hit the 90 per cent double vaccination target,” said Ardern.

Baker acknowledges there may be some in New Zealand who are waiting for an alternative to the Pfizer vaccine, which uses mRNA technology. 

"I get a regular stream of inquiries about when one of those [other] vaccines are going to be available," Baker says.

But, he says, "it seems that Pfizer is the better vaccine of choice in many respects".

"A lot of people have thought it would be good to have a more traditional vaccine available, especially those who are suspicious of the mRNA vaccine, which has been known to be safe - having been given to millions of people.

"But we can’t afford to wait," he says, adding that "everyone should bank on the fact that they will be exposed to this virus before Christmas – it may not happen but you have to plan on that".

Epidemiologist professor Michael Baker said a prime example of the effectiveness of vaccines is the eradication of smallpox.

"Many of the people who got infected were not expecting to be exposed," Baker says. 

"We know this virus does not sweep through the country in an orderly way. It sweeps among clusters.

"So even in New Zealand, we still have suppression in Auckland but it’s hard to say in the short term what will happen when we flip over to the traffic light system." 

He says he sees the merit in having an alternative to Pfizer, but says Pfizer is a highly safe and highly effective vaccine.

"Hopefully that option will be available in the future but I would just default to the wise words, that the best choice of the vaccine is any approved vaccine you can get your hands on.

"There are real advantages for having a limited set of vaccines," Baker says, adding "it will be a long time before we have the same evidence base for other vaccines".

"It would be desirable to have an alternative to Pfizer as soon as possible but there are global supply limitations," he says.

Baker also noted that it's too early to tell what the exact best-dose is for Covid-19 vaccines.

"This is a respiratory pathogen, it’s quite hard to get long lasting immunity to respiratory pathogens and there are no guarantees any vaccine will be any different in efficacy.

"We know protection does wane over time. Many countries have come to the conclusion that boosters are needed. We will learn from the UK and US who are in the process of doing this now," he says.

"No one knows what the primary best dose is. It may be with all of these injections over time, we may find the best primary dose is three, instead of needing boosters every year.

"The optimal vaccine dosing regimen may take years."

Ministry of Health says Covid vaccines are the 'most studied of our time'

The Government has secured over 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine for 2021, other approved vaccines that don't use mRNA technology are the Janssen and AstraZeneca vaccines. 

The Ministry of Health says “while no decisions have been made to date about the use of the AstraZeneca or Janssen Covid-19 vaccines in New Zealand, we recognise that there may be merit in providing a different vaccine for those individuals unable to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine".

The ministry says it’s working closely with Janssen to confirm delivery schedules, it will then be in a position to consider the use of the Janssen vaccine in New Zealand.

It donated the first tranche of AstraZeneca vaccines to the COVAK Facility for low income countries.

"The Covid-19 vaccine is one of the more well-studied medicines of our time. The Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine has met international standards for quality, safety, and efficacy," a ministry spokesperson told 1News. 

"Medsafe has received an application for Novavax. This is a rolling application, and Medsafe are awaiting further data.

"Prior to use in New Zealand, Cabinet will decide how and when vaccines will be used, and we will announce any decisions."