ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern just said the magical “t” word: transmission.
“Early evidence looks very promising of the Pfizer vaccine’s ability to not only protect individuals from the disease but also to reduce its transmission,” she said at a press conference on Tuesday.
Why is that significant?
In January, Ardern said one of two things were needed to open our borders.
“We either need the confidence that being vaccinated means you don’t pass Covid-19 on to others – and we don’t know that yet – or we need enough of our population to be vaccinated and protected that people can safely re-enter New Zealand.”
Increasing evidence suggests we are closer to an answer on her first point: vaccines do indeed reduce transmission. And that could soon be a game changer for the long-delayed trans-Tasman bubble. I’ll explain why shortly, but let’s first look at the evidence.
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A pre-print paper out of Israel, which has half its population already vaccinated, suggests the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provides a “…considerable level of prevention of transmission”.
It’s not just the Pfizer vaccine. Another pre-print paper in the Lancet suggested that one dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab could reduce transmission by 67 per cent, concluding the vaccine may have “a substantial impact on transmission by reducing the number of infected individuals in the population.”
Let’s put that into context here. Our borders workers, who are being vaccinated now, will be immune in the coming weeks. Because Covid-19 comes in via the border, it should mean the chances of another outbreak are significantly decreased.
That’s the good news. But here’s the bad. If it’s proved vaccines reduce transmission, it won’t be an immediate panacea for our border. For example, we couldn’t let a plane full of vaccinated American travellers into the country next week because the jab reduces transmission – it doesn’t eliminate the risk of passing it on. Given the virus is so rife there, you’d expect some to infect others.
However, it could be a game changer for places like Australia – which has a similar Covid-19 approach to New Zealand and very low levels of Covid-19 in the community. As soon as both countries complete vaccination of border workers, there will be significantly less risk of outbreaks on both sides of the Tasman and that should be the extra level of confidence needed to finally allow quarantine-free trans-Tasman travel to get underway.
Adding to that, Australia expects 1 million vaccines to arrive each week from late March, which will soon mean a large number of Australians could travel to New Zealand with proof of vaccination certificates, which the Australian Government says it will issue.
Our Ministry of Health has told Stuff it is investigating the potential for Covid-19-style passports, but the plans are nowhere near as advanced as Australia.
For the Cook Islands, our vaccinated frontline – and the resulting lower risk of an outbreak – could also give the extra confidence to open that bubble.
Finally, in a week of despair and deja vu for Auckland, the “Covid-19 rollercoaster” – as Dr Ashley Bloomfield now calls it – seems to have thrown up a bit of good news.