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Doctors call on N.Z. to develop coronavirus vaccination programme

New Zealand should have its own COVID-19 vaccination programme, which would benefit its neighbouring Pacific Islands too, a piece in the New Zealand Medical Journal argues.

The article is accompanied by the signatures of 126 medical professionals, scientists and industry professionals, 64 of which are from New Zealand and the rest from overseas.

Five authors, which includes Associate Professor James Usher from the University of Otago’s Microbiology and Immunology Department, argue that despite 78 vaccines currently in the early stages of development, most will not reach the market let alone New Zealand anytime soon.

After the last major virus H1N1 in 2009, vaccines went to the countries that manufactured them before allowing any exports, they write.

Nature.com’s Roxanne Khamsi reports there is no way to “force” countries to share their vaccines if they succeed in developing them. 

“During the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, Australia was among the first to manufacture a vaccine, but did not immediately export it because it wanted vaccines for its citizens first, says Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland.

“’Most countries have laws enacted that allow the government to force manufacturers to sell domestically, and I don’t see this changing,’ he says.”

Therefore, the authors argue, New Zealand might genuinely not be able to access a vaccine, or enough of one, to relax its border restrictions and rebuild its economy.

But the country, known for punching above its weight in science and technology should be working to produce its own vaccine, despite the astronomical cost.

“This capability also facilitates New Zealand to provide vaccine access to its Pacific partners such as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and the Cook Islands (among others), whose economies are largely dependent on tourism and trade,” they write.

“New Zealand has key partnerships, shared national identity and critical aid relationships with the Pacific Nations and with developed vaccine production capability, can play a key role in the wider region’s rapid economic recovery.”

As well as starting its own vaccine programme, New Zealand should also progress vaccine development in partnership with Australia and other leading researchers, and begin strategising how to roll out a vaccine once developed. 

“We strongly believe New Zealand has the capability to make a significant contribution to the global COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing efforts. Furthermore, having its own COVID-19 vaccine programme will ensure New Zealand is well placed to access an effective vaccine at the earliest possible opportunity.

The authors are Professor James Usher and Miguel E Quiñones-Mateu, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Otago, Dunedin; Graham Le Gros from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, Wellington and Shivali A Gulab and Melissa Yiannoutsos from the Ferrier Research Institute and Wellington UniVentures, Victoria University of Wellington.

In lieu of a vaccine, countries in the region that have eliminated the virus should open up their borders to each other in a “trans-Tasman bubble,” writes Anthony Dennis, Traveller magazine’s National travel editor and the former deputy editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Mr. Dennis suggests that as New Zealand and Australia enter talks to “examine” how to resume commercial flights after COVID-19 is eliminated, they urgently need to include the Pacific in those conversations.

Dr Leonardo Nogueira de Moraes, a postdoctoral research fellow in tourism, resilience and planning at the University of Melbourne told him a “coordinated regional approach” could mean the Pacific Islands stay safe travel destinations, for themselves and for Australian tourists.

It would also mean the seasonal work programmes would continue, and help the Pacific Islands tourism dependent economies slowly recover from the pandemic’s damage.

Writing in the Guardian, research fellow from the Australian National University Michael Rose has the same idea. 

“If Pacific nations wanted it, their inclusion in a trans-Pacific, rather than trans-Tasman travel bubble could be an act of goodwill that would better the lives of thousands and be appreciated for decades to come,” he said.

Meanwhile, public health and immunology researchers have been working on what New Zealand can and should be doing for its neighbours throughout the epidemic. 

As well as its own efforts to keep out, and stamp out the novel coronavirus COVID-19, New Zealand should be alert to the Pacific Islands needs, especially those with constitutional links to the country like Tokelau, the Cook Islands and Niue.

In a report commissioned by the N.Z. Ministry of Health Professor Nick Wilson, Dr. Viliami Puloka and Professor Michael Baker assessed the three islands as well as Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu and what their country could do for them.

The authors are part of a COVID-19 research group who prepared the report last month. 

Maintaining complete travel bans, offering to quarantine people in New Zealand for two weeks before travel to the islands and managing exit screenings, and managing special cargo or military flights for essential medical supplies are three recommendations they have.

The country could also offer to help surveillance and diagnostic capacity in the islands, offer to help upgrade pandemic plans and improve isolation facilities and planning.

They also recommend working on a “safe haven” approach for countries like Samoa and Tonga, which have more than one inhabited island. They suggest temporarily and voluntarily relocating vulnerable people to specific islands where the spread of disease is least likely.

The report points to Samoa’s 2019 measles epidemic as an example of the region’s “suboptimal level of health security,” highlighting the lack of access to high quality hospital care.

“These jurisdictions typically have fairly minimal and outdated pandemic plans as well as relatively low scores on the Global Health Security Index. To help address these issues, and to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to these jurisdictions from NZ and elsewhere, we present a wide range of potential interventions that NZ authorities could offer.

At the time of writing, N.Z. had already provided support the region, namely contributing a NZ$1 million to the World Health Organisation’s Pacific regional COVID-19 response plan with Australia, having its laboratories carry out COVID-19 testing for free and deployed teams to the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue. 

The report was prepared with support from the Health Promotion Forum of New Zealand, the Health, Environment & Infection Research Unit (H.E.I.R.U.), Burden of Disease Epidemiology, Equity and Cost-Effectiveness, Programme (B.O.D.E³), University of Otago Wellington.

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