Covid 19 coronavirus: National questions ‘front of queue’ claim after revealing first Pfizer order just 54,000 doses

The Government’s first purchase order of the Pfizer vaccine comprised just 54,600 doses, and was made in late January, despite a commitment from Covid-19 Recovery Minister Chris Hipkins that New Zealand would be at the “front of the queue” for jabs.

In October, the Government signed an advanced purchase agreement for 1.5 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, the jab that would later form the backbone of the vaccine rollout.

As part of the deal, no vaccine would be shipped until Medsafe had given approval of the vaccine. For a medicine or vaccine to be imported into New Zealand, it must have Medsafe approval.

When approval was imminent, the Government could raise a purchase order with Pfizer who would then deliver the vaccines.

On January 29, days before Pfizer’s jab was given provisional Medsafe approval, the Government made a purchase order for 56 trays of the vaccine, amounting to 54,600 doses. As it transpired, those trays stretched to 65,520 doses, when it was discovered six doses could be extracted from a single vial, rather than five.

It requires two Pfizer doses to be fully vaccinated, so the 65,520 doses equated enough vaccines for 32,000 people. The first shipment of around 60,000 doses arrived on February 13.

A spokesman for Hipkins defended the timing of the order, saying it aligned with the “maximum safety” approach taken by the Government during the pandemic.

“As was widely canvassed at the time, New Zealand deliberately chose maximum safety by following Medsafe’s rigorous approval process for Covid-19 vaccines, rather than rushing a shortened emergency process as some other countries did,” the spokesman said.

“This order was timed for Medsafe’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine for use in New Zealand, and was delivered shortly after,” he said.

The data was revealed by National’s Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop, who said it showed New Zealand “signed contracts late and ordered vaccine late”.

“Now we’re the slowest in the developed world to roll-out the vaccine,” Bishop said.

He said the Government should have moved faster to order more vaccines so that more would arrive in the country as soon as the jab was given approval.

He pointed out that New Zealand placed purchase orders for Pfizer months after the first doses arrived in other countries like the UK.

“Why didn’t New Zealand immediately order as much as possible, and move as quickly as possible to approve the vaccine for use in New Zealand? Pfizer was approved in the UK on December 2, and at the time it was approved in New Zealand on February 3, it had been approved in over 50 countries,” he said.

The Pfizer jab was given provisional approval in early February, and in March, the Government announced it had purchased 8.5 million additional doses, enough to vaccinate 5 million people.

At the time the first shipment of vaccine arrived, New Zealand’s vaccine strategy was to use a portfolio of vaccines. That strategy later changed to a strategy that would see Pfizer used almost exclusively.

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