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’s press secretary, Sam Farrell, said Clark, now reinstated to the Cabinet with four portfolios, including Commerce and Consumer Affairs, will not answer questions about the Pfizer letter because, “[he] no longer has ministerial responsibility for the health portfolio …” . . .
But he did have responsibility at the time.
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. . .
Once we came out of the first lockdown the government rested on its laurels, basking in praise for no community transmission (well apart from that which locked Auckland down again, and again . . ); and responding to criticisms that we needed vaccines sooner by saying other countries needed them more.
Chris Bishop, National’s spokesman for Covid-19 Response, said Clark’s “inaction” showed “unforgivable incompetence from a minister clearly distracted by other things at the time.”
“He should have been moving with speed and alacrity to get a meeting with Pfizer as quickly as possible. The fact that the Pfizer meeting took over six weeks clearly set us back in 2021,” Bishop said. . .
At the very least it shows a lack of focus and poor prioritisation.
It’s unclear whether earlier engagement with Pfizer could have secured a larger quantity of early vaccine doses for New Zealand.
If in June 2020 Pfizer was telling the government it could supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of the year, it almost certainly would have done so had the government not delayed responding.
By October, New Zealand lagged many of its peers in signing so-called bilateral advance purchase agreements with drug companies for vaccine candidates.
In March the Government signed a second agreement with Pfizer to secure a further 8.5 million doses, likely on a delivery schedule for the second half of 2021.
The Government has declined to release the Pfizer contracts, citing commercial confidentiality. The first doses arrived in New Zealand in February, 2021, following Medsafe approval, and the Ministry of Health’s schedule shows that 1.5 million doses had arrived in the country by early July, 2021.
New Zealand has subsequently incurred a roughly estimated cost to the economy of some $10 billion through lockdowns and the Government has pinned reopening to very high levels of vaccination. . .
Had more people been vaccinated sooner the latest lockdown could at least have been shortened and possibly avoided.
Instead we were all locked down for three weeks and Aucklanders have now been locked down for more than three months.
Delays in vaccination have been very expensive in both human and financial terms, and recovery from both the social and economic impacts will take years.