Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has hit out at the European Union for its new restrictions on Covid-19 vaccine exports.
In a press conference on Sunday, Ardern said the world could not afford to have “vaccine nationalism” right now.
“In my view, what the EU is doing is wrong.”
The Ministry of Health is scrambling to find out whether New Zealand will be affected by the restrictions, after EU hit pause on Covid-19 vaccine exports for two distributors. The move has been labelled “concerning” but not surprising by one clinical microbiologist.
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In a bid to ensure access to vaccines within Europe, the union has introduced a measure requiring exports to be authorised by member states before being shipped out.
This decision directly impacts the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, two of the vaccines in New Zealand’s portfolio.
“It’s certainly concerning,” said Professor David Murdoch, the deputy chair of the Science and Technical Advisory Group for the Government’s Covid-19 Vaccine Strategy Taskforce.
Around 100 countries have been exempt from the export restrictions – including Syria, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, the Ukraine, and Belarus. New Zealand is not on the list, nor are Australia and the United Kingdom. The restrictions will be in place until the end of March.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement: “The pandemic is having devastating effects in Europe and all around the world. Protecting the health of our citizens remains our utmost priority, and we must put in place the necessary measures to ensure we achieve this.
“This transparency and authorisation mechanism is temporary, and we will of course continue to uphold our commitments towards low and middle income countries.”
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said they were “concerned” by the announcement and was working to “urgently clarify” whether New Zealand would be affected.
“It is up to the pharmaceutical companies to meet the agreed timing schedule for delivery,” the spokesperson said.
Murdoch said the “highly politicised” decision to restrict global vaccine distribution appeared to be related to supply concerns within the EU. The requirement only applied to exports from companies the EU had signed advance purchase agreements with.
“They have responded in a way that’s clearly upsetting people,” Murdoch said.
He added this kind of response was not new, and said it predated the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In the vaccine world, obviously, it’s been [an issue] just in general getting vaccines into poorer countries.
“It’s an old problem, it’s now got a new context, and we will see more of this as things go forward if the supply chain doesn’t keep up with the demand.”
Vaccine nationalism has been a concern for many, including the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus.
“Vaccine nationalism might serve short-term political goals. But it’s ultimately short-sighted and self-defeating,” Ghebreysus said.
“We will not end the pandemic anywhere until we end it everywhere.”
The WHO has since labelled the EU’s decision “not helpful”.
The New Zealand Government has signed pre-purchase agreements for four Covid-19 vaccines – 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine (enough for 750,000 people), up to 5m of the Janssen Pharmaceutica single-dose vaccine, 10.72m doses of the two-dose Novavax vaccine (enough for 5.36m people), and 7.6m doses of the two-dose AstraZeneca vaccine (enough for 3.8m people).
No vaccine has been approved by MedSafe yet.
Throughout the pandemic, as vaccines hit the market, the issue around supply has lingered.
“From New Zealand’s perspective, there was always the concern [that] we’re small, we have done pretty well compared to other countries … we’re going to be last in the queue. There was that automatic response,” Murdoch said.
This may become a reality. Ardern perviously said producers may send vaccines to countries with high rates of community transmission first.
“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,” Ardern earlier said.
There may be a way around the restrictions put in place by the EU. The Australian Government has made an agreement to manufacture 50m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and New Zealand might be able to get its hands on some of these doses.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins previously told Stuff AstraZeneca determines where they ship from and where they ship to, but he thinks a manufacturer just a three-hour flight away was “probably going to be a more likely source of supply than Europe”.
Murdoch agreed that linking up with an Australian manufacturer makes a lot of sense.
There are reports that Pfizer is considering manufacturing more doses in the United States, as opposed to Europe, if the situation worsens. The company said earlier in the week that it is committed to delivering the agreed upon amount to New Zealand.