A vaccine designed to protect people against Omicron’s new subvariants could be rolled out in New Zealand ahead of next year’s winter season.
Recently appointed director general of health Dr Diana Sarfati said today she is aiming to announce early next year how a recently developed bivalent vaccine may be available to Kiwis.
Medsafe, New Zealand’s medicines and medical devices safety authority, was currently assessing an application, made by vaccine manufacturer Pfizer, for provisional approval of a bivalent vaccine intended to provide protection against Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5
As explained by the NZ Herald when Medsafe received the application in October, the updated vaccine carried 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.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, BA.4 and BA.5 were considered variants of concern as of December 1. The latter, detected in February, was classed as the dominant strain in the European Union.
Sarfati this morning appeared in front of Parliament’s health select committee for the 2021/22 annual review of the Ministry of Health.
Sarfati, responding to a question from committee member and Labour’s Ilam MP Sarah Pallett, said current evidence suggested a bivalent vaccine “would be useful for New Zealand”.
“There are a number of steps in order to make that happen but the key thing that we’re considering is the timing of that,” she said, with respect to the vaccine’s availability.
“What we’re most concerned about is going into winter next year so we’re looking at timing that potential shift to a bivalent vaccine into 2023 and we’re working through the steps to allow that to happen.”
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said Medsafe was currently assessing data concerning the vaccine and an update on progress was expected soon.
Currently, people aged 18 and over who had received their two vaccinations at least three months ago were eligible for a booster.
Second boosters, recommended for those at increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19, could be administered to people aged 65 years and over, Māori and Pacific peoples aged 50 years and over, aged care and disability care facility residents and severely immunocompromised people who received a three-dose primary course.
People under the age of 16 were not eligible for a booster.
Sarfati said eligibility for the bivalent vaccine would be examined and included in the impending announcement on its use, which Sarfati hoped would be early next year.
Speaking to Newstalk ZB, Covid-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall wouldn’t elaborate on who would be eligible, but did say a BA.4 and BA.5 vaccine would be available to those who “can currently get another dose of the existing vaccine”.
While she noted some studies suggested the new vaccine prompted higher antibody responses, Verrall said there was an absence of clinical data indicating it was superior to New Zealand’s current vaccine.
“It’s important to remember that if you’re eligible for the existing vaccine as a booster, you should get that now because it’s a really effective vaccine.”
The discussion followed an appearance before the select committee by Health Minister Andrew Little, regarding the ministry’s annual review.
Act Party health spokeswoman Brooke van Velden questioned Little over the increased use of contractors and consultants by the ministry.
She claimed 160 contractors and consultants, costing $24 million, were utilised in 2017/18. In the last financial year, van Velden said that jumped to 635 people at a cost of $150m.
Little said the last financial year included such initiatives as the vaccination programme and the recent health reforms, which required significant assistance from consultants.
Sarfati, speaking alongside Little, said it was expected the reliance on consultants would ease, but she couldn’t give a timeframe when asked by van Velden when costs might return to the 2017/18 level.
“The Minister needs to ensure his departments set a budget, stick to it, and show taxpayers some respect,” van Velden later said in a press statement.
“The Minister needs to commit that spending on consultants will decrease this year from last year, and show a clear path back to 2017 levels.”