Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visit a lab at Auckland University. Medsafe will take its case for the vaccine to the MAAC next Tuesday, Ardern said, but deployment of the vaccine will still take time. Photo: Getty Images

Medsafe will be asked to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine against Covid-19 on February 2, the Government has announced.

The Medicines Assessment Advisory Committee (MAAC) is an independent panel that provides advice on some medicine approvals in New Zealand. Its 11 members, who have experience in areas like biostatistics, infectious diseases, geriatrics, paediatrics, consumer interests, pharmaceutical chemistry and manufacturing, clinical pharmacology, toxicology, clinical genetics, rheumatology and psychiatry, are anonymous to protect them from outside pressure in making decisions.

Medsafe will hear the case for the vaccine from the MAAC next Tuesday and a decision could be made by the next day, Jacinda Ardern said, but deployment of the vaccine will still take time. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the first vaccines were still only scheduled to arrive around the end of March, but that the first wave of immunisations – for border-facing workers – would be completed two to three weeks after delivery.

Hipkins said the decision is not yet final because Medsafe could ask for more evidence.

“However, if Medsafe decides next week that some additional assurances are required before it grants approval, I accept their decision and am satisfied that it’s the right decision on behalf of all of us,” he said.

“Medsafe’s process not only ensures New Zealanders can feel confident in the vaccines we receive, it’s also been timely and means we will be ready to receive and administer vaccines as soon as Pfizer is in a position to send them,” Ardern said.

The Government has contracted to purchase 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Because two shots of the Pfizer jab are needed, that’s enough to immunise 750,000 people. Like the other high-profile mRNA vaccine produced by Moderna, Pfizer’s shot needs to be stored at or below -70 degrees and must be delivered within a few days of defrosting.

The Ministry of Health has secured nine massive freezers, capable of storying 1.5 million doses of vaccine at these subzero temperatures, and is planning to train thousands of new vaccinators for the rollout to the general population, which is slated to begin in the second half of the year. That rollout may not rely on the mRNA vaccines and could instead involve jabs developed by Oxford University or Johnson & Johnson.

For more on the mammoth logistical undertaking of distributing millions of vaccines around the country, see Newsroom’s report on the upcoming rollout

Ardern said last week that New Zealand may have been deprioritised by global vaccine producers when determining delivery timelines because we have no community transmission of Covid-19.

“New Zealand has done a fantastic job of making sure that we are in the mix for early vaccine purchase. We’ve purchased four vaccines and we’ve got agreements in place for those vaccines, but now pharmaceutical companies are in the position of making a decision around when those are delivered and received by countries,” she said.

“It is only right that those countries that are seeing devastating rates of death are receiving those vaccines and have given emergency approval for them to be distributed. New Zealand’s in a very different position and I think everyone in New Zealand understands that.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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