New Zealand plans to start COVID-19 vaccinations next week

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday the country’s COVID-19 inoculation program will likely begin on Feb. 20, brought forward by the earlier receipt of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than originally anticipated.

Pressure has been mounting on Ardern to start vaccinations for the country’s 5 million people to take advantage of its rare position of having virtually eliminated the virus domestically.

“Last year we indicated the vaccine would arrive in quarter two, and earlier this year we updated that to quarter one,” Ardern told reporters. “It’s pleasing to be receiving doses this early in quarter one.”

Both New Zealand and neighbouring Australia have formally approved the vaccine jointly developed by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc and Germany’s BioNTech. Australia has said it expects to begin inoculations by the end of this month, without giving a specific date.

However, Ardern said the vaccination programs would have no immediate impact on a stalled trans-Tasman travel “bubble”. Australia and New Zealand had hoped to allow bilateral travel by the end of March, but fresh coronavirus outbreaks in Australia have stalled those plans.

Ardern said border restrictions could be eased if there was evidence that vaccines reduce transmission.

“That will be a significant step-change if we see that evidence emerge and I’m sure that will make a difference to travel in the world,” she said. “But at this stage, it won’t necessarily make a difference.”

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Ardern said New Zealand’s approximate 12,000 border workers would be the first to be vaccinated, followed by their household contacts. Healthcare workers and high-risk people like the elderly would be next, before vaccinations for the wider population start in the second half of the year.

“We have pre-purchased enough vaccines to cover all New Zealanders and to do so for free, and the Pacific as well,” she said.

New Zealand’s medicines regulator is also in talks with AstraZeneca, Novavax and Janssen Biotech regarding approval for their COVID-19 vaccines.

(This story corrects date in lede to Friday)

Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington and Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Leslie Adler, Marguerita Choy and Jane Wardell