On 10 June the Democracy Project published online an article by me on why New Zealand should seriously consider developing its own vaccine manufacturing and supply, particularly in respect of the coronavirus pandemic https://democracyproject.nz/2021/06/10/ian-powell-lessons-for-nz-from-cuba-the-covid-19-vaccine-powerhouse/.
I argued that the powerful control of vaccine manufacturing and supply by powerful overseas pharmaceutical companies, including through patents, meant that a small economy like New Zealand would always be vulnerable in negotiating vaccine supply. This was more so because the companies are not just profit driven; they are profit-maximisation driven.
I then gave Cuba as an example of a small country that had successfully developed vaccines through not-for-profit state institutions. This isn’t just exceptional because Cuba is a small country; it is also exceptional because for over 60 years it has been subjected to brutal and cruel economic warfare. Cuba has manufactured 5 Covid-19 vaccines all at various stages of clinical trial development. In what is remarkable progress given its exceptional situation, Cuba has already fully vaccinated more than 2 million of its over 11 million population.
In a significant development Stuff reported (21 July) that some doctors were now calling on New Zealand to produce its own coronavirus vaccines in recognition of its vulnerable position https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/300362821/covid19-calls-for-new-zealand-to-produce-our-own-coronavirus-vaccines.
The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners Medical Director Dr Bryan Betty advised that the ability to produce and develop vaccines independently of overseas pharmaceutical companies must be an “urgent consideration” for the Labour government. Dr Betty’s earlier advocacy of this advice was reported in my Democracy Project article referred to above.
Dr Betty wasn’t critical of New Zealand’s access to the current Covid-19 vaccine. But he was concerned about the evidence around virus mutations leading to more deadly variants (Delta is the latest but not necessarily last) that are likely to require regular booster vaccinations. This dependency on future vaccines would make the country at risk of being “jostled around and forgotten in an international scramble for access….”
Director-General misses the point
The response to Dr Betty’s call from Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield was dismissive referring to “huge global capacity” and claiming that there had been no issues with New Zealand’s vaccine supply. His response misses the point.
The “huge global capacity” is overstated given the extensive international impact of the pandemic, the need to reach the World Health Organisation’s global target of a 70% vaccination rate in order to achieve effective ‘herd immunity’, and the control of manufacture and supply by huge international companies. New Zealand has done well to procure the vaccine supply that it has but ongoing supply of boosters and new vaccines for when the current ones wear off and new deadly variants emerge is a different matter.
New Zealand is a small economy relative to, for example, Canada which helps explain why our vaccine supply is low relative to other OECD members. Profit-maximisation driven pharmaceutical companies will naturally prioritise larger over smaller economies.
Nevertheless Dr Bloomfield was right to point out that domestic vaccine manufacture would be a big task. Advocates of domestic production are not delusional about this challenge.
Doable with long lead-in and investment
Professor David Murdoch is a specialist in pathology and internal medicine with additional expertise in epidemiology and infectious diseases. He is currently Dean at the University of Otago (Christchurch) but has recently been appointed the University’s next Vice Chancellor.
His assessment is positive recognising that New Zealand does have the potential to manufacture vaccines and has already produced animal vaccines. Like Dr Bloomfield, he recognised that the local manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines would be a “huge ask” with a long lead-in time required. But looking ahead Professor Murdoch considered it to be a “good thing” to look at New Zealand’s capability to manufacture vaccines.
Another positive response came from Associate Professor Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, an Auckland University vaccinologist. She accepted that would involve enormous investment including funding but it “should definitely be considered”. It was doable providing the investment was made, possibly in the vicinity of $1 billion to set it up.
She observed that emerging infectious diseases and the likelihood of more pandemics are now part of New Zealand’s reality. Further, New Zealand manufacturing vaccines should not only service its own population but could also contribute to wider global efforts outside the Pacific.
Noting Cuba’s own impressive humanitarian medical missions around the world I wonder if Dr Petousis-Harris has a bit of Cuban DNA in her. For avoidance of any ambiguity this is a compliment.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
As New Zealand’s famous and iconic mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary once said, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. Even acknowledging that it has over twice New Zealand’s population, if Cuba can develop vaccines while being attacked by economic warfare from the world’s most powerful economy, then surely New Zealand without such an attack could do likewise.
As a starting point Minister of Health Andrew Little could have an informal chat with Cuba’s Ambassador. After all, they both reside in Wellington and the latter’s Cuban coffee is very good.