Top Ten Science Stories of 2021

The fast-moving, complex nature of the COVID-19 pandemic showed no signs of slowing this year – from the first vaccine approved in Aotearoa to the end of our elimination strategy.

Beyond the pandemic, the climate crisis, natural disasters, increasing cyber attacks, and water care made headlines throughout the year.

Here are our picks for some of the most significant science stories that made the headlines.


Roughly a year after we heard the first reports of a novel coronavirus detected in China, Medsafe provisionally approved the first vaccine for COVID-19. Twenty-nine border workers were the first New Zealanders to receive their vaccinations in late February, and three weeks later, almost half the border/MIQ workforce had received their first jabs.

The staggered vaccine rollout prioritised groups based on workplace risk factors, age, pre-existing health conditions, and proximity to vulnerable people at home or at work.

This approach drew criticism from health experts, who said Māori and Pasifika populations should have been prioritised owing to heightened risk linked to ethnicity.

Concerns were raised by about 40 claimants in an urgent hearing at the Waitangi Tribunal in early December, investigating whether the Crown breached Te Tiriti o Waitangi in its pandemic response.

Amid criticisms surrounding vaccine equity across the country and the overall pace of the rollout, New Zealand also drew international attention for our “weird and wonderful” approaches to fast-tracking vaccination, including a pop-up vaccine clinic at a fast food drive-through queue.

In October, the televised national Super Saturday “vaxathon” resulted in 2.5% of the population receiving their first or second jab in just one day.

Ninety per cent of eligible New Zealanders are now fully vaccinated, and today Medsafe granted provisional approval for the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 years old.

More from the SMC: First COVID-19 vaccine could be approved by next week – Expert Reaction; Medsafe approves NZ’s first Covid vaccine – Expert Reaction; Which groups are at risk of under-vaccination? – Expert Reaction; New national booking system for COVID-19 vaccine – Expert Reaction; Did the pandemic response breach Te Tiriti? – In the News; Covid vaccines for early teens – Expert Reaction; Medsafe approves Pfizer vaccine for over-12s – Expert Reaction; Covid-19 vaccine for kids expected early next year – Expert Reaction; Govt resets Covid-19 approach, announcing steps to reopen NZ – Expert Reaction


Remember when the Greek alphabet wasn’t in the news each day? As Auckland re-entered lockdown back in February, health leaders said the “UK” variant – or lineage B.1.1.7 – had arrived in New Zealand.

Experts warned this variant spread far faster than what we’d dealt with before. In an SMC briefing in January, one expert explained the mutations of the UK and other variants made the virus “more sticky”, so more able to penetrate our cells and infect us.

The WHO later labelled this strain “Alpha”, announcing in June the lengthy labels used by scientists would give way to the Greek alphabet in public forums. The Greek letters are now a fixture in our daily vocabulary as more variants, like the heavily-mutated Omicron variant, are pinpointed and tracked.

More from the SMC: COVID-19 emerging variants – Expert Reaction; How transmissible is the new COVID-19 variant in NZ? – Expert Briefing; Chasing Covid variants of interest – Expert Q&A; WHO labels Omicron a new Covid variant of concern – Expert Reaction


A significantly more infectious variant rapidly became dominant internationally after it was first detected in the autumn. Over winter, Australia struggled to contain multiple Delta outbreaks, and quarantine-free travel between the two countries was suspended by July.

The Delta variant reached New Zealand in August, with a single community case in Auckland sparking the country’s second nationwide lockdown.

Alert Level 4 lockdown ultimately contained Delta’s spread to Auckland but did not eliminate it. The country farewelled its landmark elimination strategy in the spring in favour of one that will try to minimise the impact of the virus (called ‘tight suppression’ by some experts).

The new Covid-19 Protection Framework, more commonly known as the “traffic light system”, relies on vaccination and newly rolled-out vaccine passes to gain access to certain public venues.

The country plans to progressively reopen its borders with the rest of the world in 2022.

More from the SMC: Understanding the Delta variant – Expert Reaction; Trans-Tasman bubble suspended – Expert Reaction; The second nationwide Covid-19 lockdown – Expert Reaction; Govt resets Covid-19 approach, announcing steps to reopen NZ – Expert Reaction; New Covid-19 playbook for NZ – Expert Reaction


Until the COVID-19 pandemic, it was understood that the small droplets we sneeze or cough – or what we picked up when we touched droplet-contaminated surfaces – were the main way respiratory viruses spread.

A review published in Science found the pandemic has shifted this thinking, saying that droplets and surfaces alone can’t account for how the novel coronavirus is spread. Airborne transmission – defined by the spread of aerosols (fine particles suspended in the air) – needed wider study across viruses, concluded these researchers. One NZ expert said ventilation will be an important consideration for both controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and preventing future respiratory disease outbreaks.

More from the SMC: Airborne virus spread “vastly underappreciated” – Expert Reaction; Mandatory masking and Delta – Expert Reaction


This winter, the IPCC’s Working Group 1 released its latest report looking at the physical science basis of climate change, updated after eight years, finding the recent changes in the Earth’s climate were “unprecedented” and that human-induced climate change is already affecting weather extremes across the globe.

One of the report’s lead authors, Professor James Renwick of Victoria University of Wellington, said the net effects for New Zealand are that the west and south will see increases in rainfall in winter and spring, while the north and east will see reductions. If temperatures rise more than 3℃ the nation will likely lose all of its glaciers, the report said.

Later in the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, New Zealand experts discussed the science informing the COP26 goals, and what this country could do to achieve them.

As COP26 kicked off at the end of October, New Zealand politicians announced a pledge to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

After weeks of discussion, almost 200 countries agreed to keep the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to require countries to accelerate action on climate this decade, and to speed up efforts to “phase-down unabated coal” and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

More from the SMC: IPCC report on the physical science of climate change – Expert Briefing; IPCC: Recent changes in Earth’s climate “unprecedented” – Expert Reaction; What does COP26 hope to achieve? – Expert Briefing; Pledge to halve emissions by 2030 – Expert Reaction; COP26: Halfway through ‘our last, best hope’ – In the News; COP26 passes ‘lowest bar for success’ – In the News


Earlier in the pandemic, Aotearoa remained largely insulated from COVID-related conspiracy theories brewing abroad. However, a Te Pūnaha Matatini working paper, released this November, found that Auckland’s return to level 4 lockdown in August led to a drastic increase in the spread and intensity of COVID-specific mis- and disinformation online.

Meanwhile, in a cross-nation survey New Zealanders were found to have the highest levels of trust in science out of 12 countries surveyed, including the US, UK and Australia. Other studies also highlighted high trust in scientists among Kiwis and Aussies during the pandemic.

More from the SMC: The Delta Disinformation Deluge – In the News; Half of NZ has at least one misinformed belief – Expert Reaction; Tackling vaccine hesitancy – Resources for experts; Covid-19 Vaccine Media Hub opens to help journalists fight misinformation


What’s in our water and how we manage it were key topics throughout 2021.

In January, lead levels 39 times the acceptable limit were detected in a drinking water sample in East Otago. The blood levels of some local residents also revealed elevated amounts of lead.

An independent review into the health system response recommended tightening up how quickly adverse findings are reported and reviewing standards for imported plumbing to ensure it doesn’t cause high lead exposure.

In March, the government amended a long-dormant bill to shift control of water fluoridation decisions from local authorities to the Director-General of Health. Experts praised the move, saying community fluoridation was widely seen as one of the most effective public health interventions for equitably lowering the rate and severity of dental problems, and the policy move “should have been done years ago.”

Three Waters reform gained momentum over the winter, with independent analysis and modelling predicting up to $185 billion is required in the next 30 years to upgrade our drinking water, stormwater, and sewage infrastructure. In October, the Government confirmed its plans to centralise how most of the nation’s water network is managed.

More from the SMC: Lead scare in East Otago drinking water – Expert Reaction; Health response review after lead in drinking water scare – Expert Reaction; Proposed law will centralise water fluoridation decisions – Expert Reaction; Three Waters reform could cost $185 billion – Expert Reaction; Three Waters reform moves forward – Expert Reaction


Coastal communities spent a morning on alert when three significant earthquakes triggered tsunami alerts across the Pacific, with the final earthquake off the coast of the Kermadec Islands measuring up to 8.1 in magnitude. The lengthy wait times for an ‘all clear’ caused frustration among those bracing inland or on high ground, but experts said it was important to wait.

That same day, defendants made their first appearance in court on charges relating to the 2019 Whakaari/White Island eruption. The SMC led an overview briefing the day before to explain New Zealand’s risk assessment system for natural disasters.

More from the SMC: Three big earthquakes in one morning – Expert Reaction; Understanding NZ’s natural hazard and risk assessment landscape – Expert Briefing


Boosting bread-making flour with the supplement is set to become a reality, nearly 12 years after it was first proposed. Folic acid supplementation has been proven to prevent birth defects like spina bifida.

A tumultuous few weeks in 2009 saw plans to add folic acid to bread floated in Parliament that were ultimately shot down by industry-led campaign tactics. That year, Australia went ahead with mandatory fortification, leading to plummeting rates of neural tube defects in indigenous communities. Experts expect this year’s move to likewise help to reduce health inequities in this country.

More from the SMC: Mandatory folic acid in bread to reduce birth defects – Expert Reaction


All phones and computers across Waikato DHB were taken down by a cyber security incident in May, leaving clinical services scrambling. Then in the spring, several Kiwi organisations, including banks and NZ Post, had their services disrupted by distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

Experts said cyber attacks have escalated in the past few years, potentially nudged along by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to home working. They urged the government to get on the front foot with awareness campaigns and proactive support of businesses.

More from the SMC: Cyber attack cripples Waikato hospitals – Expert Reaction; Understanding DDoS cyber attacks – Expert Reaction

All images from Unsplash or Pixabay.