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A homegrown vaccine

New Zealand needs the capacity to develop and manufacture our own vaccines if we are to avoid the worst impacts of future pandemics, says Dr William Rolleston CNZM MInstD.

By Institute of Directors
13 Sep 2021
read time
1 min to read
Brick wall spray painted with a little girl and slogan saying make corona small again

Dr William Rolleston could manufacture enough covid-19 vaccine for New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. If we had a homegrown vaccine.

“We are likely to see the development of a homegrown vaccine,” says Rolleston, a director of Timaru-based South Pacific Sera, a manufacturer of vaccines, biologics and sterile medicines. “It is a real possibility. So how do we want to fit that into the current regime?”

Rolleston is a former president of Federated Farmers. His biotech company is working with medical researchers and universities as part of Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand.

Given the current, albeit constrained, supply of vaccines available for New Zealand is enough to vaccinate our entire population, the success of the project will mean increased protection from outbreaks in the future rather than protection now, he says.  

“There are a number of uncertainties out there. Uncertainty around how long immunity may last. How often do you need to be re-vaccinated? Once we have got vaccine saturation here in New Zealand there will still be billions of people in the world who need to be vaccinated. If there is a reasonably short turnaround of when you need to be re-vaccinated – say a year, like the flu – then we are going to be sitting in line for that.”

Variants of the covid-19 virus will also continue to develop as infection rages in large parts of the world’s population. It is possible a variant will break through the protection offered by current vaccines, meaning rapid development of new vaccines may be required.

“We are lucky that so far the variants have been susceptible to the vaccines we have, but we may need to pivot quite quickly to new vaccines for new variants.”

In that scenario, the ability to develop and manufacture a new vaccine locally would likely speed up the availability of a vaccine here, Rolleston says, as the whole world will be trying to buy new vaccines at that point, and New Zealand may not be at the front of the queue. “The key thing from a global perspective is to get the virus’ reproduction down as low as possible so it has fewer opportunities to evolve.”   

“At some point New Zealand is going to open up. When the vaccination rate gets high enough and the efficacy of the vaccine is high enough there will be a point where we say we are better to open up and accept that there will be some infection around in New Zealand at a level we can cope with.”

Return to travel 

As the rollout of vaccine in New Zealand ramps up, the government is taking steps to reopen our borders. It has said it will open borders next year, subject to developments in the meantime.   

Rolleston says directors should plan for opening in the medium term, but also realise it could still be a long time before borders reopen fully. 

“At some point New Zealand is going to open up. When the vaccination rate gets high enough and the efficacy of the vaccine is high enough there will be a point where we say we are better to open up and accept that there will be some infection around in New Zealand at a level we can cope with.” 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean covid-19 will fade away. The virus – and its social and economic impacts – could remain with us for many years, he says. 

“I don’t think we are at the point where we can say one or the other. In the medium term, I would plan for both scenarios. I don’t think we can say that we will all be vaccinated and it will disappear. We are seeing high infection rates even in countries which have quite high vaccination rates. 

“We don’t know if there will be another twist in this pandemic. I think it would be a brave board member who thought it would all be over in 6-12 months - and didn’t have a plan B.” 

Keep a weather eye on the science 

And what form should your plan B take? Rolleston says that will depend on how the virus mutates and the effectiveness of the global medical response. Boards need to watch scientific developments closely if they are to plan effectively. 

“From what I can see, there could be more twists and turns in this pandemic. If you are on a board that has been impacted – and there probably isn’t a board member whose company hasn’t been impacted – you need to make sure there is contingency for any twists and turns. 

“A breakthrough of the virus through the vaccine and if we get a secondary spread of a variant would be the most important thing to look at for. We do see these things coming. We have seen the Delta variant come out and that has been a really good lesson in terms of how the virus can mutate and change the rules of the game.” 

On the positive side, viruses tend to become less deadly as they mutate. 

“What you tend to see in a pandemic is a virus will become more infectious but less virulent – it will spread more quickly but it will not be as nasty. If a virus is killing people it is not doing a very good job of spreading unless it can spread really quickly. The most effective virus hangs around and the person stays infectious and everybody survives.” 

As virologists continue to learn about the Delta and Lambda strains, directors need to keep a weather eye on the science. 

“We are not sure yet if Delta is more deadly than the initial strain. The worst thing for any director to do would be to say ‘I know the answers, science hasn’t got it right and I am going to plough on as if this pandemic doesn’t exist’.” 

“I know that might sound crazy, but we have seen people in Sydney marching against lockdowns so there are people who have these views. Be aware that people even in your own company may share these views.” 

That raises very immediate questions for directors. What policies or practices are they putting in place around vaccination in their organisations? And how will they manage people who do not want to be vaccinated? 

“How do you mitigate against people not following the rules, particularly around vaccination? What do you do with staff who don’t want to or refuse to be vaccinated? It is those points that are particularly difficult and can cause a real breakdown in your well-laid plans.”  

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