Health Minister Ayesha Verrall has revealed details on the rollout of the new Pfizer Covid-19 bivalent vaccine.
The new vaccine is being introduced for everyone over 30 as a booster dose, Verrall said. From April 1, everyone 30 and over will be able to get a booster regardless of how many vaccines they have had.
The vaccine is designed to protect against the coronavirus as we first encountered it, but also against the Omicron forms causing the most Covid-19 infections in New Zealand now.
As previously explained by the NZ Herald, the updated vaccine carries two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of the virus, meaning half of it targeted the original Covid-19 strain, and the other half targeted the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.
Medsafe has already granted provisional approval of the BA.4/5 bivalent version of the Pfizer vaccine.
“People can book a vaccine through the usual channels,” Dr Ayesha Verrall said. “Our advice remains consistent, get your vaccines and boosters as you become available.”
The bivalent booster gives added protection against variants circulating the globe.
“One of my priorities as health minister is to be better prepared this winter, this rollout is an important part of that,” Verrall said.
On why the vaccine is only for those over 30, Verrall said they are more at risk - as Covid risk increases with age.
“For people aged between 16-29, they can discuss and get it with a prescription basis,” she said.
“The approach we have taken is safe and smart - we relied on advice of the advisory group and they recently recommended the bivalent vaccine.
“I think it’s very important we take this step and others to make sure we are set up for winter. There will be more announcements from Pharmac about the influenza vaccine. We will make sure that can be a one-and-done appointment - you can go in and get both.”
Verrall said Te Whatu Ora was in constant contact with health providers and that it will work with primary care representatives to make sure the response is co-ordinated.
She stressed it was still summer, and there were some months to go before the hard winter months set in.
Over the course of the next few months there will be 1.7 million bivalent vaccines in NZ. Eligibility will “always be under review” but the focus is on over 30-year-olds and people who are immunocompromised.
“This is a really important thing for making sure our health system functions over winter. It will protect you, and your whanau,” Verrall said.
Community health providers will reach directly into their communities, and Whakarongoro (Healthline) will be in communication with iwi, she said.
“We have to do better on how we work with Māori and we continue to learn. One of the key things we’ve done is make sure we have a Māori Health Authority, so Māori have a seat at the table.
“Our health system, while it has challenges, has achieved good outcomes. I want to back our health workers.”
Dr Ian Town said he did not know exactly how long the new vaccine would protect people for. But the fact so many people have already contracted Covid, they are likely to have higher immunity still with the vaccine.
The new vaccine has all the same protections as the old one, but adds on all the protection against the new variants, Town said.
“What we’re seeing overseas is no one variant is dominating - I think we’ll see small changes in the genome and we will monitor that as we’re still looking at genomic, wastewater and PCR testing.”
Dr Ian Town said long Covid was a “huge concern” but trending downwards - possibly due to the milder Omicron variant and the high rates of vaccination. Though he does not know how many people in New Zealand have Long Covid, and says it would take a more statistical analysis to figure out.
Long Covid was more of a syndrome, a grouping of symptoms, Town said. These can include brain fog, difficulty concentrating and rarer things like myocarditis.
Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said the amount of time people should remain isolated is always under review - but there has been no indication the current isolation period of seven days should drop.
On Hawke’s Bay, Verrall said flood water-contaminated items can be contaminated by sewage, “so it’s a good idea to wear gloves but also wash your hands afterwards and not tough your face.”
“There’s a recommendation to wear a mask when cleaning up dust - but that’s to stop asthma, not about contaminants.
“Always wash your hands before you eat, that’s a long-standing piece of advice.” She said that over time, the risk will decrease as bacteria disintegrate.
Dr Verrall said she is “very concerned” about a possible measles outbreak, given the rates of vaccination in New Zealand. She was focused on incentivising people to get vaccinated, and commended the contact tracing of last week’s measles case - including the subsequent quarantining.
“That is the legacy of our Covid outbreak that we have those systems in place.”
Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank has said he hoped New Zealand would start to use the updated Covid vaccines in the near future.
“England has offered these bivalent vaccines to over-50s since September 2022 and around 65 per cent have since had a dose. Data shows that these vaccines halve the risk of hospitalisation for Covid-19 compared to people whose last dose was more than six months ago.”
Using Omicron-based vaccines will provide a better match to currently-circulating variants, which are all part of the Omicron family, Plank said.
“They may also broaden our immune response, meaning our immune system is less likely to be blindsided by a future new variant.”
This week the Ministry of Health reported 8220 new cases of Covid-19 in the community in New Zealand.
There were 162 people in hospital and four people in ICU.
The ministry reported 24 deaths - one was from Northland, seven were from Auckland region, four were from Waikato, one was from Taranaki, one was from MidCentral, one was from Whanganui, one was from Nelson Marlborough, six were from Canterbury, two were from Southern.
One was in their 20s, one was in their 50s, one was in their 60s, two were in their 70s, 12 were in their 80s and seven were aged over 90.