WELLINGTON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - New Zealand will begin to offer free COVID-19 vaccines to its entire population by the middle of next year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday.
The government said it had secured enough vaccines to inoculate all of the country’s 5 million people, with two new agreements signed with pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Novavax.
The agreements secure access to 7.6 million doses from AstraZeneca, enough for 3.8 million people, and 10.72 million doses from Novavax, enough for 5.36 million people. Both vaccines require two doses to be administered.
“It will be New Zealand’s largest immunisation roll-out ever,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference.
New Zealand is among a handful of countries that managed to contain COVID-19 within its borders. There have been 25 deaths and 1,744 confirmed COVID-19 cases so far.
Ardern said the government will vaccinate border staff and rescue workers from the second quarter of 2021, and the general public in the second half of next year.
The delivery dates, however, were not guaranteed given high demand for vaccinations, including in countries that face large numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
“Never before has the entire globe sought to vaccinate the entire population at the same time,” Ardern said. “This will be a sustained roll out over months, not weeks, but our pre-purchase agreements means New Zealand is well positioned to get on with it as soon as it is proven safe to do so.”
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the health ministry has purchased nine large minus 80 degree Celsius freezers that can store more than 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. These were on track to arrive by the end of the year.
Hipkins said the start of COVID-19 immunisations would not lead to any immediate changes to the country’s closed borders. (Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Richard Pullin)