It beggars belief health authorities opted not to immunise some children in Northland during a meningococcal outbreak while left-over vaccines now look set to expire, the National Party says.

The Government has this week faced opposition questions about its response to the spread of the deadly disease in November last year, and in particular why drug-buying agency Pharmac appeared to not have taken up additional doses of vaccines while authorities took a rationing approach.

The free immunisation programme covered children under four and teenagers aged 13 to 19, but not those between.

Under questioning from Parliament's Health Select Committee on Wednesday, Pharmac chief Sarah Fitt said the agency had taken up an offer of 20,000 vaccines from pharma company Sanofi, but not one of an additional 30,000 from Pfizer because of timing.


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

"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."

She said about 8000 doses looked set to expire because of a low uptake during the programme.

"The vaccines were there but they weren't used and people, particularly children who should have got them, didn't," National leader Simon Bridges said.

"It beggars belief that those ones are sitting there literally on the shelf and not being used."

Health Minister David Clark says the vaccination programme has been a success and based on expert advice. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Health Minister David Clark says the vaccination programme has been a success and based on expert advice. Photo / Mark Mitchell

But questions also remain about why the group of experts that advised the Ministry of Health didn't know about the additional vaccine offer or whether it would have changed the response.

The Technical Advisory Group met on November 8, the day before Pharmac contacted Pfizer, never reconvened and about a week later provided advice that made up part of the Ministry's decision about who to immunise.

"It's outrageous that this information was not passed on," Whangarei MP Shane Reti said.


The Director General of Health Ashley had ended up making the wrong decision on "poor information", he said.

"The parents in Northland, they're feeling betrayed, they're feeling shocked. Some of them have sacrificed to go out and pay $150 for a private vaccines and now they know there were enough available."

Reti pointed to the seven-month-old diagnosed in March as a sign the programme had failed.

But Ministry of Health Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield told the Select Committee the quantity of vaccines available was only one factor in deciding on who to target.

How many doses could actually be given out given a tight timeframe and what had been done in Australia and Britain also weighed on the decision.

"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.

The Ministry said it had not been made aware of the Pfizer offer, the committee heard.

Health Minister David Clark stood by his official.

"He's acted on the advice of the medical experts in this area and the campaign looks to have been very successful," Clark said when asked if there had been a breakdown in information.

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.


• 24 October (2018) - Pharmac asked to look into a vaccine programme for Northland

• 8 November - Technical Advisory Group meets

• 8-9 November - Pharmac contacts both drug manufacturers - offered 20,000 doses from Sanofi and 30,000 from Pfizer

• 14 November - Technical Advisory Group gives Ministry of Health its advice, not having reconvened. Pharmac prepares to buy from Sanofi

• 22 November - Ministry confirms vaccination response. Pharmac buys vaccines

• 27 November - First vaccines arrives

• 3 December - Pharmac orders 5000 extra doses, this time from Pfizer

• 5 December - Northland begins programme

• 18 March - 14,000 children vaccinated

• 25 March - reports a seven-month-old diagnosed. Since released from hospital

• 21 May - Minister learns of Pfizer offer from Pfizer.