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Securing a COVID-19 vaccine for New Zealand – Expert Reaction

The Government has today announced further investment in COVID-19 vaccine research and manufacturing.

The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington will help lead these efforts as part of the newly established Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo. The group is charged with establishing a national COVID-19 vaccine evaluation platform and developing new vaccine candidates.

The Government has also aligned with the global COVAX Facility, co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO, which aims to accelerate the development of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair access for every country in the world.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the announcement. 

Dr Nikki Turner, Associate Professor, Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care, and Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, University of Auckland, comments:

“The world is a complex and challenging place currently. The government’s attention and financial commitment to a COVID vaccine strategy is important: for New Zealand, we need to be scoping out options and ring-fencing funding for potential good candidates right now, alongside considering the bottle necks in manufacturing capacity and whether there are local options to allow for rapid production once there are clear vaccine candidates in sight.

“From an ethical and moral point of view, I also applaud the commitment to support the global efforts.  There is a lot of international polarisation in approaches going on currently between ‘vaccine nationalism’ from countries and organisations who have power and means to take the lion’s share, versus the international efforts going in from those who genuinely are trying to focus on the terrible and rapidly rising inequities in access to resources, including the expected arrival of effective vaccines. We need a very open dialogue about these realities, and how NZ can support our own population alongside having genuine commitment to others in our region who have significantly less resourcing than ourselves.

“Vaccines will not be the magic panacea to solve all our problems with keeping the COVID-19 pandemic from our shores. However, we are expecting to see, probably next year, promising first line candidates available that will have been through appropriate safety scrutiny with no short cuts, and have some level of effectiveness. However, they will not be 100% effective and manufacturing at large scale to have sufficient supplies will be a limitation. We remain unclear about the degree of effectiveness – it is likely that early candidate vaccines will reduce severity of disease for most, but less clear if they can interfere with the spread of the virus to others. Vaccines will not be a stand-alone solution to COVID-19 spread, and will definitely not remove the need for ongoing public health measures to track and trace disease both at the borders and in our community.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor David Murdoch, Clinical Microbiologist and Infectious Diseases Physician, Dean and Head of Campus, University of Otago, Christchurch, Co-Director, One Health Aotearoa, comments:

“Today the Government provided an update on progress with the New Zealand COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy. An outline of this strategy was first announced in May. The strategy comprises a combination of major investment in global collaborative efforts (including with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance), alongside funding to support local research efforts and vaccine manufacturing capability. Implementation of the strategy is overseen by a task force consisting of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry of Health and its regulatory and purchasing agencies Medsafe and Pharmac, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“In addition, the Government has allocated significant extra funding to access a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it becomes available, and is already in discussion with vaccine providers. The Prime Minister indicated that the Government is working closely with several countries, including Australia and Pacific nations, to ensure connectivity with all aspects of vaccine development, manufacture, distribution and use.

“Clearly a lot of activity has been happening in the national COVID-19 vaccine space. This is a sensible strategy with a major emphasis on contribution to the global effort and regional collaboration, including with investment in domestic capability building. The world has never been in this situation before, with all countries eager to obtain a yet to be developed vaccine in quantities sufficient to cover their whole population. Innovative approaches are needed to ensure global equity in access to all new COVID-19 vaccines and to help minimise the adverse consequences of vaccine nationalism.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Niki Murray, Senior Lecturer, School of Communication, Journalism & Marketing, Massey University, comments:

“A great and very much needed initiative. Once we have a vaccine that works for New Zealand’s population, we will obviously be in a great position to try and control this virus.

“I hope that development and outcomes of use of such a vaccine is communicated regularly to the public to provide assurances of the vaccine’s efficacy. It is imperative that the public’s questions about vaccine safety are taken into consideration and answered, if we expect high uptake of the vaccine.

“There have been discussions in the academic literature around people being unwilling or hesitant to take a Covid-19 vaccine when available. This is concerning news. However, open, honest, transparent communication around the vaccine and a willingness to discuss the strengths and weaknesses will be useful to allay any fears and potentially encourage vaccination where people are hesitant.”

Conflict of interest statement: I have been part of research teams funded in the past by the MoH and HRC investigating health literacy and vaccination.

Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley, School of English and Media Studies, Massey University, comments:

“No matter how or when a vaccine becomes available, it will be most effective only if uptake is widespread. Good communication will be essential if most New Zealanders are to accept a vaccine as a legitimate response to Covid-19, so that we can achieve the high levels of population immunisation (around 95%) that prevent infectious diseases from spreading.

“In general the tenets of persuasive communication indicate that crucial factors for success are: credible, relatable, trustworthy sources; carefully crafted messages that understand audiences’ current attitudes and meet their associated cognitive and emotional needs; an understanding of both the diversity of audiences and the wide range of contexts (cultural, educational, social, etc.) in which they will receive the information, including their networks of relationships and influences; and the ability to connect with people’s values.

“A key way to achieve these factors is to involve the range of people you will be expecting to follow a policy in the initial planning of the policy. You wouldn’t expect to design an accessible city without consulting differently abled people for their insights, so to design a vaccine policy that will be relevant for and accepted by Māori, Pasifika, Asian, Pākehā, young people, elder citizens, different genders, people with different existing attitudes to health, and indeed all groups of New Zealanders, ideally you would involve members of all those groups in discussions from the outset. Diverse input at the front-end of policy and communication design results in more diversely acceptable policy and communication outputs.

“Some research has found that when scientists and technical experts write communication messages in isolation from their audiences, they tend to communicate as though they are speaking to other scientists and experts. This can have the opposite effect from its intention, making information seem dense, and therefore mysterious and worrying. Clarity and relatability will be key.

“Our immunisation research found people preferred to receive information about sensitive subjects such as health from a trusted, well-known source: for infant immunisation that was their midwife. We will need to identify the trusted sources for disseminating vaccine information into different communities.

“Supporting communities to do their own communication work in their own ways is often more effective than a ‘top down’ approach, particularly in communities (such as young people) where wariness of or disengagement from authority has been growing. Creative approaches can also be effective, because they can humanise issues and tell stories, show relatable role models from a particular community, and provide a ‘key’ to open up topics for discussion.

“There is a very high rate of misinformation available about vaccines. Official policy for any kind of science communication is often to ignore such misinformation so as not to give it credence, but our infant immunisation research found that people wanted the myths acknowledged and addressed, such as a through a list of ‘top myths about vaccines’, alongside simple, evidence-based debunking of the myths.

“People wanted any risks acknowledged openly, but also put into everyday context, such as by comparing them with a much more familiar risk, such as crossing the road or flying in an aeroplane.

“People wanted all communication about immunisation to use plain language and be colourful, inviting and well-illustrated with photographic images.

“People were not opposed to photos showing images of what happens if you don’t immunise your child, in fact they welcomed it, although interestingly they were keen to see just a part of a diseased baby (such as a foot showing measles rash) rather than the whole baby. We think that this was signalling that they were not averse to being visually shocked into taking action about immunisation, but they didn’t want to be so shocked by something too graphic, that they were put off from engaging with the information. People were able to be quite specific about what they found acceptable in an image and this was very useful to communication design. The intended audience is the expert on how to communicate with them.

“In the case of infant immunisation, our recommendation (based on audience input) was that a colour flip chart be developed that midwives could use during a consultation to ensure that all key points about immunisation were covered and things such as lists of myths or photos of the disease’s impact were provided, but there was simultaneously an opportunity to ask questions and chat about the decision with a trusted advisor. This could be used face to face or in a video-consultation. It may seem overly simple, but it was what audiences themselves said would be most helpful to them: and sometimes simple is best. What they didn’t want was a lot of dense written information, such as a brochure or pamphlet. In many cases they also preferred to receive the information from someone other than their doctor, as they felt less able to have an open conversation with their doctor than with, say, their midwife, with whom their relationship was less formal.

“This kind of participant-driven research, and a collaborative communication approach, will likely be crucial to finding out how to achieve effective ‘buy in’ to a mass Covid-19 vaccination programme in New Zealand.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have previously been part of research teams that have received funding from MoH and HRC on health communication topics.”