The opening of the trans-Tasman bubble may spark a wave of vaccine tourism according to a health care industry expert.
David Taylor, CEO of Zoom Health, says variances in the availability, supply and distribution of COVID vaccines are creating the perfect climate for opportunistic travel movements between Australia and New Zealand.
Taylor, whose company is set to open an influenza vaccination centre in South Auckland with a team of authorised pharmacist vaccinators, and has also recently launched a mobile immunisation service for companies with workers in Auckland’s CBD, says the potential for vaccine tourism is evidence of wider inequities in our healthcare system - where those with the financial resources have greater access to treatment options.
International statistics show New Zealand's COVID-19 vaccine rollout is the second-slowest in the OECD - just behind Australia's which has the fourth-slowest rollout.
Plans for 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be manufactured in Australia have been derailed after health authorities warned against its use in people under 50.
While 40 million Pfizer vaccines have been ordered to arrive in Australia before the end of the year, supply constraints have led to the European Union blocking shipments - a move that Taylor says may encourage some Australians to seek immunisation while visiting New Zealand.
Taylor, says there are already examples of countries using access to their surplus vaccines as a travel incentive.
“Archipelagic state the Republic of Maldives have announced a “vaccine on arrival” scheme which will be introduced for tourists once their entire population has been immunised - it’s a scenario where donated vaccines are leveraged by tourism dependent nations as a new attraction to help restart their economy.
“We now also have a looming situation where Australia may have insufficient supply lines in place for the Pfizer vaccine that it needs to immunise a large segment of its population to meet its 2021 target.
“At the same time this country is just a three hour flight away and in the coming weeks, will provide a vaccine free to everyone in New Zealand aged 16 and over, regardless of their visa or citizenship status.
“In terms of access to vaccines, New Zealand and Australia are effectively operating as a domestic market.
“The issue facing us as a nation is that while we have purchased sufficient doses of the vaccine to immunise every Kiwi twice, we know that not all of them are in New Zealand and the potential exists for significantly more pressure to go on Pfizer to meet the needs of countries like Australia who are looking for a supplement to their AstraZeneca supplies,” he says,
Taylor says at the same time, the AstraZeneca vaccine will be widely available in Australian pharmacies from June - and visiting Kiwis will be able to access the vaccine through that channel - potentially before it becomes available to them in NZ.
He says as the Pfizer vaccine is not yet approved for children under 16 we need to ensure that we are well buffered against any future global supply shortages.
“Pre COVID, we had around 1.5 million visitors from Australian residents to New Zealand and estimates are that we could reach 80% of this level in less than a year.
“Children make up around 20% of the New Zealand population and will require around 2 million doses of the vaccine when it is approved.
“To ensure we are able to protect this demographic, it is essential we manage our supplies effectively and can weather any changes in the global supply chain - for example if the recommended dosage of the Pfizer vaccine were to be extended to three shots,” he says..
Taylor says the Ministry of Health will be considering these changes in the macro environment as well as issues in our infrastructure, and the need to recruit more staff who have a level 4 or above first aid qualification to be trained as vaccinators.
“The scale of the COVID immunisation programme which is planned for New Zealand is unprecedented and when you factor in a rapidly evolving global environment, the challenges facing the Ministry in bringing equitable health outcomes for all New Zealanders are significant,” he says.