New Zealand would be straight back to Alert Level 4 if the new Covid-19 variant escapes into the community, according to expert modeller and professor Shaun Hendy.
Hendy helps the Ministry of Health and the Government with his projections on the rate of transmission under different alert level scenarios.
To date, New Zealand has eight cases of the more contagious variant found at the border out of 62 active cases.
Six of the cases had been found in December and two were announced yesterday in a Ministry of Health statement.
Hendy says the new strain is “rapidly overtaking” case numbers in Europe, which means it’s growing faster than other strains.
“If you were going to infect two people with the old strain, then you’d go on to infect three people with this new strain. So it is more infectious,” he says.
“If you translate that back into the New Zealand situation, it does mean more risk at our border now.
“We don’t understand why it’s more transmissible but we do know it is more transmissible”.
He says with subsequently increased risks at our border facilities, if the new strain did get into the community the country would need to use Alert Level 4 — the highest level of lockdown — to try and eliminate it.
He says more infected people in managed isolation increases the likelihood of transmission, as does the risk the new variant poses to workers in those facilities.
Hendy says while “risks are heightened”, the managed isolation facilities have improved over time and New Zealand is in a better place to stamp it out “relatively quickly”.
“We’ve been running out border facilities for quite some time now and we’ve certainly seen improvements over time. If this had been the original outbreak, if this strain – if we’d been fighting that back in March and April, it certainly would have been much harder for us.
“We’re in a relatively good position in that we can keep it out.”
Meanwhile, as concerns over the variant in Australia have seen the country bring vaccine plans forward, the New Zealand Govenment said today it has no plans to change the schedule.
Duty Minister Kris Faafoi told 1 NEWS that New Zealand’s medicines regulator, Medsafe, will be talking to their Australian counterparts over the coming days about data which is available for the Pfizer vaccine.
"Timing around Medsafe’s approval process for the Covid-19 vaccine has been streamlined but it depends on many factors, such as the data that companies provide and whether it meets internationally agreed criteria for safety and efficacy," he said.
"Medsafe has agreed to allow pharmaceutical companies to make rolling applications for their Covid-19 vaccines, which means they may submit their data as it is completed and ready for assessment. Pfizer, BioNTech, and Janssen have already started to submit data to both us in New Zealand and our counterparts in Australia," Faafoi said.
"While Medsafe will streamline its assessment processes and prioritise its assessment of Covid-19 vaccines to obtain a vaccine more quickly, it will not compromise on the integrity of the process or on vaccine safety. This is a critical part of the process and the typical approval timeframes depend on a variety of factors (ensuring the full set of data is available, resolving any gaps in data, or New Zealand specific requirements).
"Once we have the full dataset for a rolling submission we expect to be able to make a decision. We cannot give an exact timeframe due to the variables involved but, using a rolling submission processes and building on any earlier approvals of trusted regulators in Australia, UK, Canada, Europe and the USA, we expect to progress quickly.
"New Zealand is in a privileged position with Covid-19 remaining largely outside our borders. This isn’t the same for other countries. The situation in some countries is driving requests for emergency authorisation of vaccine candidates – where the risks associated with vaccines that haven’t been fully assessed yet are outweighed by immediate health risks and loss of life associated with the virus outbreak.
"New Zealand is not in that position."