The government today announced its first Covid-19 vaccine purchase agreement. What does it mean? Science reporter Jamie Morton explain.
What has been announced?
A deal that will provide New Zealand with about 1.5 million Covid-19 vaccines – or enough for 750,000 people.
But it is up to the vaccine makers – Pfizer and BioNTech – to successfully complete Phase III clinical trials, and pass regulatory approval here.
All is well, the vaccine could be shipped to New Zealand in the first quarter of next year, said Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods.
“Pfizer says they are making good progress with the development of the Covid-19 vaccine,” he said.
“Depending on clinical and regulatory success, and provided the vaccine is approved for use here in New Zealand by Medsafe, it is likely that multiple doses will be available to us in the first part of 2021.”
What is the vaccine?
Global drug giant Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech are behind a group of candidates – BNT162b2 – who are among the pioneers in the worldwide vaccine race.
Research so far has shown that this virus boosts antibody and T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
T-cells are white blood cells that can attack cells infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, while antibodies are able to neutralize the virus so that they cannot infect cells when they are first infected.
Overall, you have a strong shield against the coronavirus.
As an RNA vaccine, this vaccine works by bringing genetic material into cells, before being encoded for specific proteins from the virus.
As of this week, the vaccine is in its third and final Phase III trial at more than 120 locations around the world, with 28,000 people having been given a second dose.
This month, the two companies launched rolling submissions to the European Medicines Agency, while Health Canada has begun a real-time review of its candidates.
Is this the only vaccine we can use?
Professor Helen Petousis-Harris, University of Auckland vaccination specialist, said today’s announcement marks the first – and not the last, purchase agreement.
“There are still others on the table too,” he said.
Australia, for example, has signed an agreement to mass-produce the University of Oxford and the AstraZeneca virus vector vaccine, ChAdOx1-S, also in Phase III trials.
It was shown to trigger a T cell response within 14 days of vaccination – and an antibody response within 28 days.
Like the influenza injections we are more used to, this is a viral vector vaccine, and uses a chunk of the pathogen to effectively stimulate an immune response against it.
Petousis-Harris said another pioneer was the LNP-encapsulated mRNA vaccine developed by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Massachusetts-based Moderna.
This month, eight groups received 17 vaccines in Phase III.
It is widely expected that the first vaccine will start rolling out at the end of the second quarter, or early third quarter, of 2021.
“So we hope it will be the middle of next year where we really start to see a vaccine available,” he said.
“But [the Pfizer-BioNTech candidate] potentially arriving a little earlier than that. “
How does this fit into New Zealand’s strategy?
The government says this complements other parts of our broader and recently launched vaccine strategy, such as the global Covax Facility which can provide for up to 50 percent of our population’s needs.
It’s allocating hundreds of millions of dollars – won’t reveal exactly how much, for commercial reasons – to take the Kiwis and our Pacific neighbors as far as possible.
“The primary objective of our portfolio approach is to ensure we have flexibility and choice when it comes to securing the right vaccine for New Zealand and our Pacific neighbors,” said Woods.
The task force executing the strategy is now negotiating with other pharmaceutical companies, with further announcements expected next month.
Woods said “good progress” was being made on the deal, and having additional deals would ensure enough vaccines were available for the entire country.
There are concerns at a high level over New Zealand’s gaining early access.
One recently released Cabinet paper since August indicated that the Government is concerned that New Zealand’s COVID-19-free status and good health could mean it would not be prioritized if global priorities and allocations were simply left to needs assessments.
It recommends that New Zealand needs to provide “significant resources early on to help secure access to vaccines”.
Having a series of advance purchase agreements means potential access to a number of vaccine candidates, but it does not guarantee access to vaccines, as “it is likely that the majority of candidates considered will not be viable”.
Such prepayments cannot be recovered once they have been paid.
Determining the cost of the upfront agreement would be difficult, money had to be allocated to get started, the document said.
It is expected that early delivery of the vaccine costs between $ 75 and $ 150 per dose when slower delivery can cost less than $ 15.
So, who might get the vaccine first?
The call has yet to be made, but the Ministry of Health is working on what the immunization program should look like.
“A number of factors will influence who will receive what vaccine and when, such as data on trials of the suitability of each vaccine for a particular age group,” said Health Minister Chris Hipkins.
“We have set aside $ 66.3 million for medical supplies and infrastructure to ensure New Zealand is ready to launch the Covid-19 Immunization Program as soon as we have a safe and effective vaccine.
“Most of this investment will finance supplies sufficient to support the countries of New Zealand and the Pacific; supplies such as PPE, syringes, syringes and swabs, and refrigerators to store vaccines.”
What about local vaccine production?
It happened too.
About $ 3 million in Government funding will go to Kiwi biotech company Biocell to upgrade its facilities so that it can launch 100 million doses.
Other Kiwi consortiums have been exploring potential candidates of their own – such as the inactivated vaccine approach led by Professor Miguel Quiñones-Mateu of the University of Otago, and a recombinant spike protein vaccine under development at the University of Victoria’s Dr Davide Comoletti laboratory – over the past few years. month.
And a local company has secured $ 3.3 million in private funding to go ahead with a Covid-19 vaccine made with Kiwi technology.
The Covid-19 Vaccine Corporation (CVC), which was founded in May, has collaborated with the University of Auckland, Callaghan Innovation, and the research institute Scion, in an effort to independently develop a local coronavirus agent.
The company aims to complete its first human trials of the new vaccine by the end of next year, at a cost of about $ 8 million.
– Additional reporting – RNZ