With the Covid-19 vaccine rollout now well under way, I'm often asked by patients, "will the current vaccine be a yearly event?" and "what's the future of Covid-19?"
While there are many variables at play, one thing I can say is that Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future.
We are adapting to a new normal; one where phrases such as "social distancing", "chain of transmission", and "alert levels" are now part of our everyday language. Our freedom to travel beyond Australia is limited; families are still separated; and we have worldwide grief on a scale not witnessed since the Spanish Flu, which lasted from 1918-1920.
We need to be smart about the realities of a virus that mutates into different strains. That's how influenza operates too, and specialist general practitioners are well versed in dealing with that every year. Vaccines will help enormously, but complete eradication is unlikely. Since 1962 the only human virus we've managed to globally wipe out is smallpox.
The best-case scenario is that the vaccine being rolled out effectively stops Covid-19 in its tracks, and we require no more than the two-dose vaccination to stay Covid-free for the rest of our lives.
However, the more likely scenario is where variants, being random genetic mutations that continue to evolve and challenge the vaccines that have been developed, require new vaccines and new programmes to ensure everyone has access to them.
It's potentially a never-ending cycle of developing, amending, and reinventing Covid-19 vaccines.
We'll likely all require booster shots, much like the flu jab, to keep Covid-19 in check.
What we don't know is how frequently we will need them, or when the effectiveness of that vaccine may wear off.
New Zealand is already subject to the whims and environmental pressures of international vaccine production, and the politics and competition for supply are likely to increase. As a country we need to consider how to reduce our reliance on internationally sourced vaccines to overcome ongoing and changing threats of Covid-19.
We can't allow ourselves to be jostled around and forgotten in an international scramble for access, especially because we've done such an outstanding job of keeping Covid-19 out of the country.
The ability to produce and develop Covid-19 vaccines independently within New Zealand must be an urgent consideration for Government and decision-makers. While the Government has made some investments in domestic vaccine development throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, there needs to be a continued focus on resources and support – it cannot just be a short-term response.
The Government needs to act to create a resilient system that allows New Zealand to develop and produce Covid-19 vaccines ourselves. We need to invest in the technology to ensure we have the upper hand against this virus, its ongoing mutations, and any future viruses.
Secure access to vaccine supplies is what our patients will need long-term and creating that "in-house" will help get us there. Let's make sure we're not left dependent on other countries or scrambling to keep up in this new world we are all living in.
• Dr Bryan Betty is medical director of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners