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Covid 19 coronavirus: Government may provide indemnity to NZ supplier of vaccine

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By Ben Strang, RNZ

The Ministry of Health is planning to fast-track the approval process for a Covid-19 vaccine, and won't rule out offering a supplier indemnity from any potential claims resulting from its use.

It said Medsafe will ensure a vaccine is safe for use, and it will not be used on people unless clinical data suggests it is safe and effective.

A vaccine is the golden ticket back to normality, and is eagerly sought by people throughout the world.

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This week, pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer announced they were launching trials of a Covid-19 vaccine which they say, if successful, could lead to approval and widespread use by the end of the year.

More than 150 coronavirus vaccine candidates are in various stages of development, with some two dozen prospects already conducting human testing.

Politicians are wanting to rush them into use when they are ready to go.

New Zealand is no different, and a Ministry of Health spokesperson said in a statement that it is looking at how it approves vaccines.

"As part of the Covid-19 vaccine strategy, the Ministry is working to develop an expedited regulatory approval process that will still maintain standards," the statement read.

Megan Woods, the Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, whose team is leading the vaccine strategy work. Photo / Mark Mitchell Megan Woods, the Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, whose team is leading the vaccine strategy work. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Medsafe will ensure that any vaccine for Covid -19 will be of acceptable efficacy, quality and safety before it is used in New Zealand.

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"Clinical data will be required to ensure any vaccine is safe and effective before it is used on people. The process will be run by Medsafe."

The Ministry did not rule out offering indemnity to a vaccine supplier, as has happened previously.

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Documents obtained under the Official Information Act show the previous Labour government accepted liability when it sourced a bird flu vaccine.

In May 2007, the Ministry of Health obtained 100,000 vaccines from Baxter Healthcare, at a cost of up to $3.4 million.

But as part of the purchase, the government had to provide indemnity to Baxter.

"It is not practical to conduct a normal trials process with this vaccine, so Baxter cannot license the vaccine in the normal way," the report, sent to then-Finance Minister Michael Cullen, and then-Health Minister Pete Hodgson, said.

"It is also not possible to know ahead of time how effective the vaccine will be against any H5 pandemic virus that may develop within the shelf life of the vaccine."

The Ministry said every potential supplier of the vaccine had the same conditions - indemnity "from any claims arising from the use of the vaccine".

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While it was deemed a financial risk, it was determined to be worth it for the potential benefits if the bird flu pandemic worsened.

RNZ has put questions to Megan Woods, the Minister of Research, Science and Innovation who is leading the vaccine strategy work, about whether the government would consider taking liability for a Covid-19 vaccine.

Meanwhile, as part of that strategy, Pharmac said it is seeking information "regarding Covid-19 vaccine research, manufacture and supply, including supplier willingness to consider a range of different commercial scenarios for supply to New Zealand".

It said it has not sought commercial proposals for the supply of a vaccine.

Pharmac listed eight technology platforms it is considering for a vaccine, but said it is open to other technology also.

The vaccine types were: Inactivated virus; live attenuated virus; DNA-based vaccine; RNA-based vaccine; non-replicating viral vector; replicating viral vector; protein subunit; and virus-like particle.

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The government has dedicated $37m to the Covid-19 vaccine strategy, which includes support for local research and manufacturing, and support for international research.

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