New Zealand is in a good position to deal with the inevitable arrival of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, experts say, as our vaccination rates climb into the nineties, and we take a gradual approach to re-opening to the world.
As an island nation at the bottom of the globe, it can be easy to lose sight of the international picture, but comparative data shows Aotearoa is faring well when compared with other developed countries.
Eighty-seven per cent of eligible New Zealanders are now fully vaccinated. Taking into account those that aren’t eligible for the vaccine, that number falls to 71 per cent, but this is much higher than counterparts like the UK – which opened up when just 54 per cent of its population was double-jabbed.
And next week, scientists expect to see blood samples containing the Omicron strain, which has now spread to 29 countries, including Australia. That data, from the World Health Organisation, will provide some insight into how various Covid-19 vaccines, including Pfizer’s, stand up to the new variant.
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The head of Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand, Dr Fran Priddy, said these samples would be “either reassuring or concerning” but our vaccine levels gave us a strong shield and the ability to pivot quickly.
“Our vaccination rate is quite high and … the timing for opening up and going in stages in 2022 means our exposure will be less and will be staged.”
Per head of population, New Zealand’s death rate from Covid-19 has been the lowest in the developed world since May, when it dropped below the previous title-holder, South Korea.
“We have fewer people who have lost their lives so that’s a huge success, that overshadows all the other stuff,” Priddy said.
The UK’s sits at 213 deaths per 100,000. It reported 141 deaths on Thursday (local time), as the third major wave persists.
“I don’t think we’ll be in the same situation as the UK. I don’t think we’ll see a huge death wave, but it’s hard to predict.”
The traffic light system came into force across New Zealand on Friday, to differing responses.
Freedoms in the UK were similar to our green traffic light setting, and by the time we get there in at least 2022, vaccination rates will be even higher, Priddy said.
If vaccines need tweaking, Pfizer has said that can happen within about three months, and in theory the updated version could be slotted into our booster roll-out.
“That doesn’t mean we need it, that doesn’t mean it would necessarily be available in 100 days to New Zealand … but if the timeline Pfizer gives is accurate and if the data shows it might be helpful, we could actually put it in our booster programme because the timing overlaps,” Priddy said.
“’But the current vaccine booster may work quite well, because it does against Delta.”
Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said the coming days and weeks would make it clearer as to how the variant might spread if it penetrates our shores.
Initial evidence has suggested Omicron carries an increased risk of reinfection.
“The consensus is [vaccine effectiveness] is likely to be reduced, but it won’t be taken away altogether,” Plank said.
“There’s some hope the protection we have from the vaccine against getting severely ill will hold up better than protection against a mild infection.”
He predicted cases would eventually rise as a result of increased freedoms, even without the new variant, but expected they would “stutter along” over the school holidays then climb more rapidly as New Zealand nears the winter months.
By then New Zealand would need to re-look at the game plan, within the context of seasonal influenzas and with the hindsight of the RSV outbreak last winter.
But by all accounts, the Pfizer vaccine was the reason cases in Auckland appear to have reached a peak “at least for now”, Plank said.