The Government's drug-buying agency has defended its decision to not buy more vaccines for children during a meningococcal outbreak in Northland, saying even what it did get hasn't been used.

The National Party has been probing the Government's response to the spread of the deadly disease in November last year, with Pharmac and the Ministry of Health on Wednesday facing questions at a parliamentary health committee inquiry into why they had chosen only to immunise children aged 9 months to four years, and 13 to 19-year-olds.

Much was made of a global shortage of the necessary vaccine when the programme was launched, and the Government opted to not cover children aged five to 12 – instead focusing on those younger and older.

Documents this week revealed Pharmac had been offered 33,000 additional vaccines from manufacturer Pfizer, on top of the 20,000 it bought from provider Sanofi, in early November, but didn't take up the offer. The amount would have more than covered the remaining age groups.


The agency's chief, Sarah Fitt, defended that decision at the inquiry, saying the Pfizer stock would have had to be taken up about two weeks before the vaccination programme was officially launched and that it was also in hot demand in Australia.

"We didn't know if it would be available in two weeks' time," she said.

"We were still working through all the information ... We dealt with the Ministry [of Health] and felt that the two groups that were going to be targeted we could get sufficient stock [from Sanofi] to cover 100 per cent of both."

National's Whangarei MP, Shane Reti, says a seven-month old may have avoided the disease if the vaccination programme had gone further. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National's Whangarei MP, Shane Reti, says a seven-month old may have avoided the disease if the vaccination programme had gone further. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Fitt rejected suggestions Pharmac had been too "locked in" its contract with Sanofi, saying the agency had tried to work with both suppliers, and that the decision had been about price.

"We went back to Pfizer later when there was a worry the second batch wouldn't arrive in time," she said.

About 8000 leftover doses of the vaccine were now likely to expire due to a low uptake in Northland, Fitt added.

The committee also heard the Government advisory group recommending who to target met on November 8, a day before Pharmac called Pfizer, and never reconvened to hear about the offer.

"It's outrageous that this information was not passed on," Whangarei MP Shane Reti, who has led the complaints this week, said afterwards.


"The programme that went ahead excluded five-to-12-year-olds. A seven-month-old baby went on to contract the disease and this might not have happened if the full roll out had been carried out."

The Minister of Health and Prime Minister have said they didn't hear about the Pfizer offer until May.

But Ministry of Health Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the amount of vaccine available had only been one factor in deciding who to immunise, along with questions about how many doses could actually be given out logistically given a tight timeframe and what was considered best practice in overseas areas.

"There were other cases in other parts around the country, including by that time several deaths, and one of the things we were very conscious of was that it could have been necessary to stand up a vaccination campaign somewhere else in the country," he said.

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that causes meningitis.

While meningococcal B (Menz) had long been the dominant strain in New Zealand, causing two thirds of cases of the disease, there has been growing concerns over the spread of new strain MenW since 2017, with similar growth seen in other countries.