The Prime Minister insists all efforts were made to secure early access to vaccines last year, including pursuing more expensive “early access” doses from pharmaceutical companies.
The Government has been under pressure over the vaccine rollout, which while recently has started to ramp up was for most of the year among the slowest in the world, largely due to a lack of supplies.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has been adamant there was nothing the Government could have done to speed up the process, including paying more for earlier access to vaccines.
However while New Zealand announced its first advance purchase agreement on October 12, starting between May and August dozens of countries had inked agreements with pharmaceutical companies.
Pfizer signed such deals with countries including United States, Britain, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Israel and Canada.
Ministers brought a paper to Cabinet in August last year outlining the need for the Government to think about what it was willing to pay for vaccine doses, and how it would weigh that against securing early delivery.
“Vaccines for early delivery will be more expensive (e.g. $75-150 per dose) compared to later delivery (perhaps less than $15 per dose) …” the paper reads.
“Officials have modelled a small set of simplified hypothetical portfolios to get some idea of how costs might add up. This modelling suggests the size of funding required is highly sensitive to the number of early access vaccines we choose to purchase.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday the Cabinet “absolutely” made a conscious choice to pursue “early delivery” vaccines, and did not delay any purchase agreements to save money.
“We were entering in discussions with all of those [vaccine manufacturers] to cover ourselves so that if one proved to be unsuccessful, we have alternate options.
“That was the basis of our choices and our negotiations, not price point. We wanted the best vaccines possible for us.”
Different countries worked to earlier timelines due to their relative comfort levels with where the clinical trials were at, and the regulatory processes, she said.
“That often determined a difference for most countries.”
National Party Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said it was “very clear” New Zealand was late to sign the advance purchase agreements.
“By the time it was approved here hundreds of millions of doses had been given around the world, so throughout the whole process we have been slow and that is really costing us now.
“Every vaccine brings us closer to avoiding lockdowns, we should have been moving heaven and earth to get as many as we could.”
Bishop said the justification the Government was awaiting trials before putting any orders in did not “hold any water”.
“We ended up signing before they finished trials anyway. I think there was a degree of complacency in the Government, a lack of vigour in negotiating and not a desire to pay what it took to get it.
“The evidence is clear on that – countries that aggressively negotiated and paid a premium got earlier access.”
Indeed Canada in December amended its agreement with Pfizer and paid a higher price than previously contracted in order to receive early doses.
In October last year the Government announced purchase agreements for four vaccines, including for 1.5 million doses of Pfizer, subject to Medsafe’s approval.
The Government has said until the end of February it was keeping its options open with other vaccines and ultimately decided solely on Pfizer, ordering another 8.5m doses to be delivered by the end of 2021.
Hipkins and the Ministry of Health have both refused to say whether this later order consequently came with a different delivery schedule, meaning they could not have arrived sooner.
Bishop said that first deal was “penny-pinching”.
“It was a very small amount. Just imagine if we had put in those orders for 10 to 12m doses in June/July last year, imagine if we’d done that and started rolling out as soon as possible, we would be in a very different situation now.”
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