New Zealand PM Ardern says aims to vaccine nation in second half of 2021

"This will be New Zealand's largest immunisation roll out ever," Ms Jacinda Ardern said in a statement. PHOTO: AFP

WELLINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - New Zealand aims to begin vaccinating its entire population against Covid-19 in the second half of next year in its largest-ever immunisation program, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. The nation's currency rose.

The government has secured two additional vaccines from pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Novavax, and will have enough for all five million New Zealanders, Ms Ardern said on Thursday (Dec 17) in Wellington.

If proven to be safe and effective, immunisation will begin with border workers and essential staff in the second quarter of 2021 followed by the general population in the second half, she said. The vaccines will be free to the public.

"This will be New Zealand's largest immunisation roll out ever," Ms Ardern said in a statement. "Most countries are factoring the roll out to take all of 2021 and some of 2022 to complete due to its scale and complexity, also due to production and delivery timeframes."

New Zealand has eliminated community transmission of the coronavirus but the country's border remains closed, a big blow for the important tourism industry and the economy. Vaccines will be key to the reopening of the border, but the government cautioned today that the start of the immunisation program "will not mean any changes to our borders initially".

"Our border remains the first line of defense against Covid-19 from imported cases," Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said in the statement. "To make any decisions around borders we need to be confident that the New Zealand population is sufficiently protected."

"The big question now is, how safe and effective are the different vaccines?" said Ms Siouxsie Wiles, Associate Professor at Auckland University's School of Biological Sciences.

"The scientific community are still waiting to see all of the data for how well each vaccine prevents transmission of the Covid-19 virus as well as preventing severe disease. That will determine how the vaccines should be rolled out in New Zealand and when it will be safe to open our borders again."

New Zealand has now secured four vaccines after earlier pre-purchase agreements with Pfizer/BioNTech and Janssen Pharmaceutica. Three of the vaccines require two doses. The new agreements give access to 7.6 million doses from AstraZeneca, enough for 3.8 million people, and 10.72 million doses from Novavax, enough for 5.36 million people.

Novavax said in a statement on Thursday it will manufacture NVX-CoV2373 with a target of delivering initial doses by mid-2021.

The company will work with New Zealand's regulatory agency, Medsafe for approvals, it added. The statement did not disclose further terms of the agreement.

Ms Ardern said the strategy has been to purchase different types of technology so that if some are found not to be as successful there are alternatives available. All vaccine roll out will be dependent on sign off from regulator Medsafe and the speed of manufacture.

"We are moving as fast as we can, but we also want to ensure the vaccine is safe for New Zealanders," she said.

As well as covering Tokelau, Niue and the Cook Islands, which belong to the Realm of New Zealand, the government will offer vaccines to Pacific Island neighbors Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.