Wednesday 24 November 2021

Missed opportunities

Kate MacNamara keeps digging into New Zealand's botched vaccine procurement last year. 

Things could have been so different.

Labour Minister David Clark was sent a key Pfizer letter on June 30 last year, in which the drug company pressed the head of New Zealand's "vaccine taskforce" to meet and discuss its vaccine candidate.

Taskforce officials, however, were not equipped at the time to begin talks with the drug company, and over six weeks elapsed before a first meeting took place.

The Cabinet finally armed the taskforce with funds both to contract specialist negotiation expertise and to make vaccine purchases on August 10; officials signed a non-disclosure agreement with Pfizer on August 13 and a first meeting with the company took place the following day, on August 14.

Clark, the then Health Minister, refused to answer questions about the letter, including whether he read it at the time and whether he made any effort to hasten the readiness of the taskforce to begin meetings and negotiations with the drug company.

Clark was beset by calls to quit his post at the time the Pfizer letter arrived and he resigned as Health Minister two days later, on July 2. An upcoming election, then scheduled for September 19, added sensitivity to Clark's predicament.


Pfizer's June letter noted: "We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals, then rapidly scale up to produce hundreds of millions of doses in 2021.

"I would welcome an opportunity to discuss our candidate vaccine development in more detail, and open discussions on how we might work together to support planning for potential Covid-19 vaccinations in New Zealand and continue to build a strong partnership for the future," the letter said.


It's unclear whether earlier engagement with Pfizer could have secured a larger quantity of early vaccine doses for New Zealand.

New Zealand contracted to buy 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine candidate on October 6, 2020.

Earlier this year an Auditor-General Report noted that "the Taskforce wanted to purchase more doses of the Pfizer vaccine [in its first contract] but, at the time the agreement was signed, Pfizer was in negotiations with other potential purchasers and could not commit to supplying more doses of the vaccine to New Zealand. However, the purchase agreement included an option to purchase further doses of the vaccine if they became available."

By October, New Zealand lagged many of its peers in signing so-called bilateral advance purchase agreements with drug companies for vaccine candidates.

The delay in starting negotiations, because Clark was distracted and because, for incomprehensible reasons, the bureaus hadn't prepped themselves to think about vaccine procurement, meant we were competing against other places for supply. 

If we'd started when Pfizer sent the letter, decent odds we could have started the vax rollout with a lot more doses a lot sooner.  

Think about what that means.

The government made a laudable effort to push vaccines out to elderly Māori in remote communities. But they had hardly any doses at the time and were also trying to vaccinate border and health workers. They could have made that push a vaccination event, vaccinating whanau at the same time. The vax rates by ethnicity by age, at least when I'd last looked at them, had no particular ethnic gap for Māori at older ages - because of that push. But the gap at younger ages is substantial. How much of that gap could have been bridged if they'd had enough doses to vaccinate the whole community while they were out there? 

Here's the most recent data.

The lowest vaccination rates are for younger Maori in more remote places. 

But their grandparents are vaccinated. 

They could have been vaccinated at the same time, or at least everyone 16+ could have been.

But the government didn't have enough doses. 

And it's awful likely that that's because Clark, Bloomfield, and Crabtree sat on a letter from Pfizer for 6 weeks.

When the letter was released, only its main recipient was noted: Dr Peter Crabtree, the chair of the vaccine taskforce.

However, in response to a subsequent written question by Bishop last month, Hipkins revealed that the letter, delivered by email, was copied to Minister Clark and also to Bloomfield.

You'd think they'd have learned by now. But while Canada's vaccinating 5-11 year olds, and the US has been for weeks, New Zealand just isn't. And the odds-on bet on why we aren't is that they screwed up procurement again, because they didn't see any need to hurry.  

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