New Zealand could be years away from returning to normal unless the Government injects millions into launching a Covid-19 vaccine programme.
That is the warning from some of our country's top scientists, who have published an article in today's New Zealand Medical Journal.
"A vaccine is the only clear exit strategy that will allow New Zealand to return to normal," James Ussher, clinical microbiologist at the University of Otago, told the Herald.
Researchers including Ussher fear that without our country making any contribution to the global vaccine effort, New Zealand could be left behind.
"It is prudent for New Zealand to invest in a Covid-19 vaccine development programme that will provide New Zealand with the option to develop and produce its own vaccine or to produce a vaccine developed offshore.
"It also builds the capability for the country to respond more quickly should another global pandemic emerge in the future, which undoubtedly will happen."
His comments come after director general of health Ashley Bloomfield has repeatedly said New Zealand would not draw the short straw when it came to accessing a vaccine.
When asked if accessing a vaccine could come down to which country made the highest bid, Ussher said: "Though that is not the World Health Organisation's goal, that behaviour has been seen in the past and we cannot rule out that it won't happen again.
"There is every chance that the global market will come to bear and there's no guarantee that if a vaccine is produced in America, for example, that we will see that vaccine until America has met its needs."
Ussher said the Government could not afford to "sit back and hope for a best-case scenario".
At best, a vaccine could be developed overseas in 12 to 16 months but delays were inevitable.
In response to the pandemic, 78 vaccines were in the early stages of development worldwide.
Ussher and his team want the Government to fund a New Zealand programme that would evaluate international vaccines, develop its own and prepare for rapid production for an approved vaccine.
Malaghan Institute director Professor Graham Le Gros has echoed these concerns, saying the vaccine will not just land on New Zealand's doorstep all nice and shiny and cheap in 18 months' time unless it gets really engaged in defining partnerships, developing its own programme, developing its own capability, because there is going to be a global shortage of production capacity.
A vaccine programme would need an initial investment of $5 million but further investment would be needed.
Dr Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, last week told the Herald she didn't think it was likely that New Zealand could make its own vaccine from scratch but the country did have the capacity and ability to design vaccines and run clinical trials.
That was shown with the MeNZB vaccine against Meningococcal B, which was designed in and for New Zealand, based on an existing vaccine overseas.
New Zealand also had plenty of vaccine design science in animal areas, the lab capacity to run trials, and a good regulatory authority, she said. But the country was too small and under resourced to do it alone.
"My personal opinion is we'd be better off partnering with others such as Australia, and trying to support the South Pacific as our patch."
The Herald approached the Ministry of Health for comment but did not get a response.
Treatments to combat Covid-19
Another article published in the New Zealand Medical Journal called on the Government to support local scientists in developing treatments that would protect our population until a vaccine was ready.
In the paper, researchers said these treatments should be sourced externally or made locally, but steps in this direction must now begin as the lockdown ends.
"New Zealand has the scientists, the facilities and the will to make this happen, but the support of the Government and the population will be needed if this plan is to succeed."
There are two types of treatments that could help save New Zealanders from dying of Covid-19; convalescent sera and the use of direct-acting anti-virals.
Convalescent sera is a specific protein-rich liquid from patients who have recovered from an infectious disease, in this case Covid-19.
Direct-acting anti-virals (DAAV) are small-molecule drugs that directly interfere with
the replication of viruses.
Both could be acquired in the short term while a vaccine is pending and both
can be made in New Zealand if they are unavailable from external sources, researchers say.
The paper said it was important to stress that the population of New Zealand as a whole was not immune to Covid-19 infection, and that a reintroduction of the virus in the future
is "virtually certain".