COVID-19 vaccines are an important step forward in our response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
New Zealand is currently administering the Comirnaty™ vaccine (from Pfizer/BioNTech) to those at greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The New Zealand government has guaranteed that every New Zealander will have access to the Comirnaty™ vaccine after signing an advance purchase agreement for 8.5 million doses. New Zealand also has secured COVID-19 vaccines through advance purchase agreements with three other pharmaceutical suppliers, namely, Janssen Pharmaceutica, AstraZeneca and Novavax. These pre-planned arrangments mean that New Zealand can buy certain number of doses of vaccine from these companies, if their vaccines are proven to be safe and effective and are granted Medsafe approval. As part of a global vaccine development collaboration called COVAX, New Zealand and its Realm countries in the Pacific will also have access to additional vaccines.
How COVID-19 vaccines work
Vaccines work by teaching the body’s immune system to recognise a disease-causing organism (pathogen) without causing illness and to create an immune memory of that pathogen. When you are later exposed to the pathogen, your body already has an immune memory and is ready to rapidly fight to prevent the infection. In the case of COVID-19, the pathogen is the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
There are many ways vaccines can be produced, however, they all follow the basic principle of providing a harmless version or part of the pathogen to give the immune system a snapshot of the disease. The COVID-19 vaccine, Comirnaty, gives your own cells the instructions to make a small part of the virus that is known to produce a protective immune response. Learn more about how immunisation works on the IMAC website.
How COVID-19 vaccines have been developed quickly
In less than a year, several licensed COVID-19 vaccines have become available worldwide. The speed of their development can be credited to an amazing international collaborative effort.
Science has come a long way since the early days of vaccine development, and we have had positive breakthroughs in design - particularly with the newer RNA and vector-based vaccines leading the way.
International cooperation supported by significant financial backing has helped overcome roadblocks that have traditionally slowed vaccine development pathways. The different stages of development and approval usually would happen one after another, taking many years to be completed. For COVID-19 vaccines, many of these stages were overlapped, run in parallel or prioritised. This dramatically reduced the amount of time needed to reach regulatory approval to be able to use these vaccines more widely, but still means every step was completed.
Some of the factors enabling the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines include:
- The fact that the large pivotal trials were able to enrol the large numbers of willing participants easily, and because COVID-19 disease is so prevalent, clinical data was collected much faster than for less prevalent diseases.
- Manufacturing plants were built before the vaccines were finished. This significant financial risk, before they knew if the vaccines would work, meant they were ready to scale up production rapidly as soon as the preliminary clinical trial data showed success and they were approved for use.
- Authorisation bodies reviewed data as it arrived, to speed up the regulatory processes.