New Zealand has joined the ranks of countries to approve COVID-19 for use, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won’t be among the first vaccinated.
On Wednesday, medicines regulator Medsafe gave the green light for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be used in New Zealand, which has bought 750,000 doses.
Kiwi health authorities hope to begin vaccinations next month, well behind other countries including Australia.
Ms Ardern has pledged the first tranche of vaccinations will go “to the most at risk”, which does not include herself.
“I will absolutely be vaccinated, my family members will be vaccinated,” she said in the tiny Northland village of Waiomio on Wednesday.
“But right now I’m not the first order of priority.
“I don’t have day to day contact with people who may have COVID-19. It is our cleaners. It is our security guards. It is our nurses who do the testing at our managed isolation facilities. They need to be first in line.”
Workers within New Zealand’s border regime, including health professionals, and their families will be prioritised in the rollout.
Further prioritisation will be decided by cabinet in the coming weeks.
COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said he expected the Pfizer vaccine would begin arriving next month and the border worker program would take two to three weeks.
The March arrival means New Zealand trails most other developed nations to begin vaccinations, despite Mr Hipkins saying in November that “New Zealand will be at the front of the queue”.
The NZ government says it will vaccinate the broader population in the second half of 2021.
“2021 is the year of the vaccine,” Ms Ardern said.
“It’s a full-year program we have only just begun. We’re not in a race to be first but to ensure safe and timely access to vaccines for all New Zealanders.”
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said regulatory approval required a round-the-clock effort.
“Medsafe began assessing the clinical data provided by Pfizer/BioNTech in November, working over weekends and through the Christmas break,” he said.
“There is more work to do, we are not out of the woods yet but the provisional approval of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is a significant milestone.”
New Zealand has recorded three community cases of the disease this year and has not had a COVID-related death since September.