Coronavirus: Covid-19 vaccine ‘long way’ off, NZ could be bottom of list

New Zealanders are being warned they could be among the last citizens in the world to get the coronavirus vaccine, as scientists scramble to develop a homegrown candidate.

Experts have told Stuff that under most scenarios it will be a “long way” before a vaccine makes it to New Zealand shores, with growing nationalism overseas fuelling a reluctance among leaders to share vaccines beyond their borders.

Even if vaccines were shared globally, New Zealand would be “on the bottom of the list” of countries to receive it, they said.

Globally, scientists are developing more than 100 vaccine candidates using a range of techniques, some of which are well-established and some which have never been approved for medical use.

In New Zealand, there is one study underway to re-purpose an existing drug as a Covid-19 vaccine as well as research into how we could manufacture an overseas vaccine domestically.

Graham Le Gros says we are a number of years away from accessing a vaccine.
Graham Le Gros says we are a number of years away from accessing a vaccine.

Some estimates have put developing a new vaccine at around 18 months away. But Professor Graham Le Gros, director at the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute, reckons it will take two years “if it all goes well”.

Once developed, the vaccine will need to be manufactured to meet global demand, which could take several more years.

“People think a vaccine means something you can get at your GP or your pharmacist, and we are a long way from that,” he said.

Le Gros said which nation gets the vaccine would come down to a mix of money, politics and need.

“Is it based on money, [and] who can pay the most, or a World Health Organisation-approach in that it will be going to the highest priority?

Coronavirus testing requires lab work.
Coronavirus testing requires lab work.

“You don’t have to be Einstein to realise we will be at the bottom of that list,” he said.

Dr James Ussher, a senior lecturer in microbiology and immunology at Otago University, said companies were scaling up their production, but the global demand for vaccines will still outstrip supply.

He said many overseas vaccine manufacturers are likely to vaccinate their own country before they look to export.

Associate Professor James Ussher of Otago University says nationalism will be a barrier towards accessing a Covid-19 vaccine
Associate Professor James Ussher of Otago University says nationalism will be a barrier towards accessing a Covid-19 vaccine

“America has put some money into the Oxford vaccine to scale up production on the proviso they will be taking the first 300 million doses,” Ussher said.  

Vaccinologist and associate professor at Auckland University Dr Helen Petousis-Harris said ideally the vaccine would be distributed based on greatest need, but even then New Zealand would fare poorly. 

“But then there are a lot of complexities there with who has made the vaccine and how they make it available for distribution globally, [and] who pays?”

At the same time, it would need to be deployed where its effects can be “intensively monitored”.

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris says a potential Covid-19 vaccine will ideally be distributed where it has the greatest need.
Dr Helen Petousis-Harris says a potential Covid-19 vaccine will ideally be distributed where it has the greatest need.

She also said any New Zealand effort would need to look out for our Pacific Island neighbours. 

The Government has given Wellington biotech company Availia Immunotherapies $100,000 funding to research the development, testing and manufacturing of a potential vaccine.

The company is building on research from the University of Otago, Victoria University and Malaghan Institute into an inactivated SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.

Ussher said if local efforts were not successful contributing to international research to find the vaccine will be an “insurance policy” to ensure access and the right to manufacture in New Zealand under licence.

But Le Gros said New Zealand could not afford to wait for an overseas solution.

“New Zealand’s scientists have the expertise,”  he said. 

“Thank goodness it’s a really simple virus that doesn’t change too much.”

If a homegrown vaccine is found, the country’s manufacturers would pump about a million doses a week, he said. Even then, rolling a vaccine out to the entire population might take another one to two years.

“I am terrified, personally. It’s going to be a real challenge,” Le Gros said. 

Pharmac, New Zealand’s drug buying agency, said they were still awaiting government direction on the strategy for accessing a Covid-19 vaccine.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Ministry of Health were approached for comment for this story.

VACCINE FRONTRUNNERS

Oxford University in the UK.

Biotech company Moderna in the United States.

CanSino Biologics Inc. in China. 

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