A clinical study getting under way in Rotorua and Christchurch will provide valuable information on how our unique population responds to the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.
The study Ka Mātau, Ka Ora (from knowledge comes wellbeing) is being led by Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo (VAANZ) and is being undertaken to inform the national Covid-19 strategy and ultimately enhance vaccine effectiveness and confidence.
"While the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has demonstrated efficacy and safety in pivotal clinical trials and real-world studies, it has not yet been studied in New Zealand," said Malaghan Institute's VAANZ clinical director, Dr Fran Priddy.
"We want to understand how New Zealanders' immune systems respond to the vaccine, particularly in populations likely at higher risk from Covid-19, such as Māori, Pasifika and the elderly."
Priddy said with vaccine safety already being closely monitored and evaluated in New Zealand and internationally, Ka Mātau, Ka Ora would focus on characterising immune responses.
"Studies done post-vaccination in other countries have shown lower antibody responses in some groups, such as the elderly and those with obesity.
"We don't know if this translates to reduced effectiveness, but it will be very hard to measure effectiveness unless we have a large outbreak. So measuring immune responses is the best proxy right now for us in New Zealand."
Priddy said our 'Covid-naïve' population would also offer unique data to global research.
"Vaccine immune responses may differ in populations with little prior viral exposure, as is currently the situation in New Zealand."
There are ways to increase immune responses to vaccines, she said.
If the study identifies responses that may affect effectiveness, this could be addressed in the future by booster shots, different vaccination schedules, or different vaccine types.
Clinical immunologist Dr Maia Brewerton, who is on the Malaghan Institute's Te Urungi Māori advisory board, said Aotearoa was in an enviable position due to its elimination strategy, and measuring specific immune markers offers a useful alternative approach to assess the vaccine response amongst our people.
"Māori and Pasifika have a greater burden of conditions like heart disease associated with more severe Covid-19 disease. However, even after we account for these conditions, Māori and Pasifika are still at increased risk of developing severe disease," she said.
"We know there is more to learn and this research is important to help identify and understand any differences in the immune response which can guide the optimal vaccine approach for our people.
"During the influenza pandemics last century, Māori experienced higher death rates and I hope with knowledge from research like this we can prevent a repeat of this story for Māori as we journey into the uncertain future of this Covid-19 pandemic together – Ka Mātau, Ka Ora."