Jacinda Ardern's big challenge of 2021: The race to open the border for international travel

David White/STUFF
The nine ultra-cold freezers will store 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

OPINION: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's biggest challenge of 2021 is a monumental one: opening the border.

As we sit here enjoying summer without Covid-19 in the community, you may ask: What's the rush? Well, the biggest arms race of the 21st century is under way – except the arms here are on our bodies. And the weaponry is a needle. We’re talking about vaccinations.

The stakes are massive: Countries that get the rollout right will emerge more powerful in a post-Covid world.

The country that is first to get its vaccine rollout right will emerge more powerful.
iSTOCK
The country that is first to get its vaccine rollout right will emerge more powerful.

New Zealand is a global leader in its elimination strategy. Now, the crucial question is: Can we continue that wave of success with a safe, quick rollout of vaccines and open our borders?

Australia has put a line in the sand. It wants the entire population vaccinated by October 2021, and presumably borders will open shortly afterwards. New Zealand has so far been silent on a date.

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For countries that get their populations vaccinated fast, the benefits will be measured in the billions. Lives will be saved, trade will be able to resume freely, businesses will be able to look outside their domestic market, and international tourism will resume.

And there are some early frontrunners. Israel wants 25 per cent of its population injected by the end of this month, and so far, on a per-capita basis, it is leading the world in the administration of Covid-19 vaccines.

In New Zealand, we are rightly taking a more considered approach and waiting for more evidence from emergency use trials before giving the green light. Lives aren't in immediate danger here, but livelihoods are the longer borders remain closed.

Statistics may say domestic tourism is going well, but meeting operators gives you a real sense of the situation.
Brook Sabin/Stuff
Statistics may say domestic tourism is going well, but meeting operators gives you a real sense of the situation.

I've just spent 100 days touring New Zealand as part of Stuff Travel's Back Your Backyard campaign. Politicians can hold up statistics saying things are going well, but talking to people on the ground is where you get a real sense of how things are going.

Many tourism providers relied on the wage subsidy until September, then hoped the summer period would provide enough cashflow until the Australian bubble opened, potentially in the first quarter of this year. However, with fresh outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria, a travel bubble may not eventuate.

So there is a slim but growing chance that tourism providers will have to wait for the vaccine rollout to be complete before any international tourists arrive. And most are desperately wanting to know when that will be.

The year of herd immunity?

One of the terms you are about to hear a lot about in 2021 is “herd immunity”. In New Zealand’s case, that's when a sufficient level of our population is vaccinated, meaning Covid-19 won't rapidly spread. Our border will not fully open until this is achieved.

The Ministry of Health hasn't said what level of herd immunity will be required, because it's impossible to say at the moment. However, having a best guess is important – and the current view of Dr Anthony Fauci (head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) is “70 [per cent] to 80-plus per cent” of a country's population. Initially, Fauci said 70 per cent to 75 per cent, but that figure has gone higher in recent weeks.

So, in the “arms race” I mentioned before, the golden level is likely to be about 70 per cent to 85 per cent of our population – or 3.5 million to 4.25 million New Zealanders.

Governments, including ours, are taking big gambles with different vaccines. They are hoping they can buy enough, and then get it early enough, to get their populations vaccinated and open borders.

So, let's look at New Zealand's roll of the dice when it comes to vaccines.

Pfizer and BioNTech

This vaccine has been approved in multiple counties for emergency use and is about 95 per cent effective in preventing symptomatic infection.

New Zealand has 1.5 million doses ordered so far; given that two doses are needed, this is enough for 750,000 people. This could start arriving as soon as March, but any rollout will depend on our regulator, Medsafe, granting approval.

It also needs to be frozen at very low temperatures, making it more difficult to transport and distribute than other vaccines.

Janssen Pharmaceutica

An agreement has been signed to purchase up to 5 million vaccines from Janssen Pharmaceutica, and the Ministry of Health says this is likely to require a single dose.

The company, a Belgium-based division of Johnson & Johnson, is conducting a substantial phase 3 (or final stage) trial of 60,000 people and the vaccine technology uses a method with a strong safety record in other diseases.

The results of the phase 3 trial are expected in January or February. If it's effective, it would be a huge win for New Zealand given this vaccine only requires one dose and doesn't need to be stored at very low temperatures.

A health worker holds a syringe and a Covid-19 vaccine in the vaccination centre of Hotel Dieu in Paris.
Martin Bureau/AP
A health worker holds a syringe and a Covid-19 vaccine in the vaccination centre of Hotel Dieu in Paris.

Novavax

Novavax commenced phase 3 trials in the United States and the United Kingdom. However, some significant hurdles remain. The vaccine must first be proven to be effective, which won't be known for a few months at the earliest.

Then, if it works, New Zealand won't get this vaccine “until later in 2021”, according to the Ministry of Health. It would provide cover for 5.36 million people.

AstraZeneca

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine started being rolled out for emergency use in the United Kingdom this week, and our Government has secured access to 7.6 million doses. Given two doses will be needed, this is enough for 3.8 million people.

So far, the results indicate the vaccine is 62 per cent to 90 per cent effective, depending on the dosage. And this one can be stored at regular refrigeration temperature.

When will our borders open?

Two of the above vaccines – Pfizer and AstraZeneca – have already been approved for emergency use by overseas regulators. Assuming Medsafe approves them, that'd give enough vaccines for 5.3 million people, well above the roughly 70 per cent to 85 per cent needed for herd immunity.

The crucial question is: When will we get enough vaccine to reach herd immunity? The Ministry of Health says a general rollout will commence in the second half of 2021, but when it's complete is what we need to focus on. There's been no official word on that yet.

Could we reach herd immunity about October, as Australia aims to do? That would be a best-case scenario, and one Ardern will no doubt be working towards. The prime minister won’t want to see Australia opening its borders while we lag behind despite having the advantage of a smaller population.

My guess would be Australia's timeline is too optimistic, and it will eventually settle on having it done by the end of 2021. This is probably a more realistic scenario for New Zealand, too.

Another third scenario could involve not enough vaccine arriving in 2021, and herd immunity only being achieved sometime in 2022. There are many variables that could change these projections, but these are my three best guesses.

Ardern's Government did well in its elimination approach. Those advocating for the Swedish "let it in" model have largely gone quiet, as history proved that was a mistake. Ardern’s approach was the right one: We are one of the few countries that have just enjoyed Christmas gatherings without any restrictions.

But public sentiment could turn if other countries like Australia and Singapore get their borders open well before ours. It is a game of vaccine chess, and the right strategy will be a multibillion-dollar boost to our economy.

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