Covid 19 Delta: Pfizer waited over 6 weeks for first vaccine meeting with NZ officials last year

Drug company Pfizer pressed New Zealand government officials to meet and discuss its vaccine candidate in June of last year, some six weeks before a first meeting actually took place.

In a letter from Pfizer to Dr Peter Crabtree of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, the company described “actively scaling up our manufacturing capacity and distribution infrastructure”.

“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,” the letter, dated June 30 said.

However, in June MBIE was ill-equipped to pursue negotiations with vaccine-makers. It wasn’t until August 10 that the Cabinet appropriated any funds to either establish a team to negotiate advance purchase contracts with vaccine-makers or to fund such contracts themselves. MBIE confirmed that a first meeting between officials and Pfizer took place on August 14, 2020.

Just days before, on August 10, Cabinet agreed $600m for “advance purchase arrangements of potential or proven vaccines and therapies … ” and signed off another $500,000 to “establish the negotiating team to ensure that it includes external people with the right skills and expertise in specialist negotiations.”

Chris Bishop, the National Party’s spokesman for Covid-19 Response, said the letter confirms that the Government took a “slow” and “complacent” approach to vaccine purchases last year, which set the stage for the slow vaccine rollout of 2021.

“They dropped the ball and now we’re paying the price for it a year later in Auckland,” Bishop said.

When the current Covid-19 outbreak began on August 7, just 20 per cent of the New Zealand population was fully inoculated. Earlier this week the Prime Minister confirmed that Auckland will remain in level 3 lockdown indefinitely, until the country reaches an undisclosed level of vaccination, although the alert level will be subject to weekly review.

“We should have been going as hard as possible, as early as possible, last year to get access to the vaccine, and it’s pretty clear from the timeline, I think, that we didn’t do that,” Bishop said

“I mean Pfizer writes an email in late June saying we’re pretty keen to meet to discuss our revolutionary vaccine, we don’t form a negotiating team until August, that’s six-weeks later, we don’t actually sign a heads of agreement until October, so that’s three months after Pfizer initially reaches out and then we don’t actually sign the finalised contact with Pfizer until just before Christmas 2020,” he said.

Simon Rae, manager of international science partnerships at MBIE, said the first meeting with Pfizer was held in August because officials had to secure funding for advance purchase agreements first.

On May 26, 2020, joint Ministers including Meegan Woods, Minister for Research, Science and Innovation announced $37m earmarked to support domestic vaccine research and possible manufacturing and to fund collaboration on international efforts at vaccine development.

A “vaccine taskforce” was also established at that time. But it’s not clear why the Government waited until August to fund purchasing and negotiation. Minister Woods was not immediately able to respond to the Herald’s questions.

Ultimately deals were reached with four pharmaceutical companies, though the Government decided to use only the Pfizer vaccine.

New Zealand contracted to buy 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine on October 6, 2020.

Pfizer began the process of seeking regulatory approval from Medsafe only after the purchase agreement was signed in October, 2020.

The first doses arrived in New Zealand in February, 2021, following Medsafe approval. And in March, the Government signed a second agreement with Pfizer to secure a further 8.5 million doses.

Graeme Jarvis, CEO of Medicines NZ, which represents the pharmaceutical industry, said his organisation first met with MBIE’s vaccine taskforce in June, 2020, and had a second meeting with the group on August 13.

He characterised the first meeting as “positive” but he described New Zealand as “late in proactively engaging with the vaccine companies on supply discussions”.

“Many other countries’ governments had been proactively collaborating with the industry and companies from early 2020, [and] had completed advanced purchase agreements from as early as May 2020, completed regulatory approval processes, and initiated vaccine campaigns in December 2020,” Jarvis said.

Starting in May, and picking up pace in June, July and August, Pfizer signed advance purchase deals with countries large and small: the United States, Britain, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Israel and Canada to name a few.

Those agreements appear to have secured countries’ place in the delivery queue. The government has withheld contract terms.

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