The greatest obstacle to a speedy rollout in New Zealand is supply and the Government can’t tell us why, writes Marc Daalder

COMMENT: It’s been difficult to get criticism of the Government’s vaccine rollout to stick.

While the Opposition and other critics of the rollout have scored a couple of hits on the Government, they looked across the ditch with some level of envy in July as Scott Morrison apologised for the slow pace of Australia’s programme.

New Zealand’s, by almost any measure, is now slower. But Jacinda Ardern has clearly not felt the same heat as Morrison has.

That’s despite our rollout having hovered around 120th in the world, in terms of percent of population with at least one dose, for months. Most of the developed world is well ahead of us.

Even so, criticism of our rollout faces a significant obstacle: It isn't quite clear why the rollout has been so slow.

We are, by and large, vaccinating people as soon as we get doses. There are valid questions about the stockpile of doses we are building up to ward off against supply disruptions, and whether those vaccines might be better situated in New Zealanders' arms than in the freezer. There has also been incisive reporting and interrogation of the Government's trouble in vaccinating specific groups of people - first MIQ workers, then port workers and now a sluggish rollout for Group 3 even as Group 4 opens up for jabs.

But the overarching reason for the delay is a supply issue. Even if all of the logistics were sorted, there was no vaccine hesitancy and people lined up on the Auckland Airport tarmac to get jabbed as soon as doses arrived in the country, we'd still only have administered as many vaccines as we've received (2.7 million as of Sunday).

That would put us at 54 doses per 100 people, compared to the European Union average of 106 per 100 or the North America rate of 84 per 100 people.

This overarching supply issue is due in part to the decision to go all in on Pfizer and in part to the particularities of the contracts signed with vaccine manufacturers, which will never be released.

The Government says it purchased a wide range of vaccine candidates to hedge against the risk of any one or two vaccines turning out to be a bust. When Pfizer ended up working better than most other options and when we secured enough to vaccinate the entire population in a deal finalised in February, the Government said the others weren't needed.

But the portfolio could also be used as a hedge against delays in deliveries. While the Janssen vaccine was always scheduled to arrive in the third quarter of the year, it's unclear how early we might have been able to get our hands on AstraZeneca doses to speed up the rollout.

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That said, there may be legitimate health reasons to prefer Pfizer over the others. It certainly seems to have among the highest efficacy rates and fewer side effects than non-mRNA vaccine candidates.

The key questions therefore all relate to the confidential supply agreements.

Were we poor negotiators? Could we have received vaccines sooner if we had paid more? How did Europe and North America secure hundreds of millions of doses in the first half of the year, when we needed a mere eight million?

Certainly any suggestion from the Government that the slow delivery schedule is a result of altruism on New Zealand's part should be disregarded. Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins have tended to respond to questions along these lines with faux outrage on behalf of developing countries with less access to vaccines.

If the Government legitimately sought to vaccinate border workers and vulnerable people and then wait for the developing world and those countries still threatened by Covid-19 outbreaks to reach herd immunity before finishing our own rollout, that would be an understandable (if unpopular) decision. But we are still on track to finish our rollout by the end of the year, when most people in some of the world's poorest countries won't be vaccinated until 2023.

It is still possible that New Zealand was not a priority for vaccine manufacturers - behind the developed countries that needed doses most, but ahead of poor countries that wouldn't pay the premium we could. 

Given other elimination countries have almost universally struggled to roll out vaccines at the pace of the US or UK, that theory could hold water.

But so long as the Government keeps mum on the details of the supply agreements, it will have to remain just a theory. Any effort to hold the Government accountable for the slow rollout is hampered by this lack of transparency.

In the end, if the confidential contracts remain confidential, we may never know why New Zealand has lagged behind most of the developed world in receiving vaccines.

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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