Dr Muriel Newman

It’s been eighteen months since New Zealand’s first Covid-19 lockdown was imposed on the country, so let’s look into what we have learnt.

There have now been four major lockdowns, three caused by breaches of the Government-run border security system. We now know that while lockdowns have been effective at containing the spread of the virus, they have generated serious unintended consequences – many of which have had only superficial coverage.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Waikato University Economics Professor John Gibson – who has described lockdowns as “one of our greatest peacetime policy failures” – outlines his concerns in two papers.

In the first, Lockdowns only Slightly Postponed Deaths in New Zealand, he points out that during last year’s first lockdown, which started on March 25, “there were almost 500 fewer deaths than would be expected from the 2011 – 19 average.”

That’s not surprising, since the lockdown prevented road crashes, most work accidents, boating tragedies, an influenza outbreak, and so on.

However, this was then followed by an unexpected increase in deaths:

“Starting in November and persisting past the end of February 2021 – in this period, up to 100 more people died per week than would be expected from the historical patterns, totalling almost 1200 excess deaths. The surge in deaths was concentrated on the elderly.”

New Zealand, of course, was not alone in experiencing excess deaths amongst the elderly. In her investigation into the situation in the US for NBC News, Suzie Khimm reported:

“The effort to shield elderly, frail and disabled residents from the coronavirus has created another wrenching health crisis: The confinement meant to protect the most vulnerable is also threatening their lives. We’ve locked these older adults in their rooms in the name of safety without thinking about the unintended consequences. In many respects, the side effects are worse than the potential harm of a slightly higher risk of infection.”

According to Joshua Uy, Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, “The isolation is robbing them of whatever good days they have left – it accelerates the aging process. You see increased falls, decrease in strength and ability to ambulate. You see an acceleration of dementia, because there is no rhythm to your day. There isn’t a single part of a person’s life that isn’t affected.”

Concerns about the damaging impact of lockdowns on short and long-term public health is growing amongst medical professionals around the world, with the Great Barrington Declaration highlighting “lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come…” 

While the effect of disrupted medical care, loneliness, anxiety, and deteriorating mental health – as well as the devastating impact of small business failure – cannot be underestimated, what is not generally acknowledged is the long-term harm to society caused by a decline in life expectancy, as falling economic output results in less investment in health care.

As Professor Gibson explains in his second articleLockdown Again, “the Treasury long-term fiscal forecasts released recently show future life expectancy is almost two years below what they had previously forecast. Thus, the apparent kindness of locking down to limit Covid-19 deaths will, instead, be killing more people by making us poorer.”

Lockdowns, of course, are part of the Ardern Government’s elimination strategy for dealing with the virus. At her post-Cabinet press conference last Monday, the Prime Minister explained:

“At the moment, our strategy is elimination. We’ve not changed our plans… Now we have vaccinations. We have this tool. We need you to use it.”

Essentially, four main types of vaccines are being used around the world.

Both Moderna and Pfizer use messenger RNA technology, which works by injecting part of the genetic code of the virus into the body, triggering it to make the viral spike protein which then trains the immune system to identify and attack Covid-19. AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson (Jannsen), and Sputnik V (the Russian vaccine) use harmless viruses to deliver Covid-19 genes that also trigger the body into making the spike protein. Novavax uses viral spike protein fragments to trigger an immune response; and Sinopharm and Sinovac (the Chinese vaccines) utilise more traditional methods by using inactivated viruses to trigger the production of antibodies to fight Covid-19.

Our Government, which opted for the Pfizer vaccine, is now playing catch up with their vaccination roll-out. Until the latest outbreak was announced on August 17, the country was lagging behind the OECD. But since the level 4 lockdown was imposed, the vaccine rate has climbed substantially to the point where 37 per cent of the eligible population has now had two doses of the vaccine, with 72 per cent having had one dose. 

While the goal appears to be 80 to 90 per cent vaccinated by the end of the year, even if the vaccination target is achieved, it may not be the panacea that some are hoping for.

Professor Gibson explains: “A recent paper by Pfizer’s own scientists shows vaccine efficacy (VE) for infection with the Delta variant falls by 10 percentage points per month, to be just 53% if the second jab was more than 4 months ago. Falling protection was almost as fast against other variants, declining by 8 percentage points per month. When they break out the results by age, VE for the at-risk elderly starts low and wanes at a similar rate as for all-age groups: VE against infection is highest at 80%, within a month of the second jab, and by four months later VE is down to 43%.”

Israel, which was one of the first countries to impose a strict vaccination regime using the Pfizer vaccine, is now struggling with slumping immunity, and as a result, they are now imposing a third booster:

“On Aug 31, Israel registered 11,000 new Covid-19 cases, the highest daily number since the pandemic began. The worrying thing was: That day’s case count beat a record set in mid-January, when only a small proportion of Israel’s population had been vaccinated. By the end of August, at least 68% of Israelis had received at least one vaccine dose, but even the vaccinated were falling sick enough to need hospitalization. Alarmed, the Israeli government set about administering booster shots, trying to contain a surge in cases driven largely by the Delta variant.”

This not only raises the question of whether New Zealand will suffer the same fate as Israel once our borders begin to open, but concerns are also being raised about what people can do to keep themselves safe, since having the vaccine is no guarantee that they won’t get sick with Covid.

These concerns have led the Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, to explain that alternative treatment options – to be used in conjunction with the vaccine – are now being considered for New Zealand.

It’s fair to say that since the beginning of the pandemic, research has been going on all around the world to find effective therapies for Covid-19. Some potential treatments were identified early on when cohorts of patients taking certain classes of medication were found to have avoided infection.  

The Medical Journal The Lancet outlines one such case, where asthma patients were found to be under-represented in severely ill cases of Covid – even though they had compromised respiratory systems. Investigations into the treatments they were using revealed that some types of inhaler drugs were effective in reducing virus replication and inflammation. As a result, there are on-going trials which are showing great promise of providing “an effective, safe, cheap, and readily available treatment for COVID-19 in the community”.

In another case, outlined in a US National Library of Medicine paper, it was similarly noticed that there was a lack of Covid infections in rest-homes, where the elderly patients had been treated for scabies outbreaks with Ivermectin – a cheap and effective drug that is widely used for the treatment and prevention of viral and parasitic conditions.

Throughout the pandemic, ivermectin has been used against Covid-19 in many countries, including in Central and South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the government claims the drug helped its 241 million people “to maintain a lower fatality and positivity rate” compared to others.

Meanwhile, Australian researchers at Monash University, who are investigating the potential for ivermectin to be used as an anti-viral for treating Covid-19, note the drug “is firmly on the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines with millions of doses prescribed worldwide every year” (including New Zealand where it was approved by Medsafe in 2005) – and they outline details of 68 clinical trials that are currently underway into its effectiveness against the virus.

However, Dr Bloomfield, our most senior health adviser, takes a different view and has dismissed ivermectin as a “livestock drench”.

It is now clear that the Government has staked its political future on the Pfizer vaccine strategy, which requires near universal vaccination and regular booster doses. They were re-elected last year on the strength of their response to the pandemic, and, with their vaccine roll-out having been woefully slow by international standards, they now desperately need high numbers to avoid Covid being added to a long list of  Labour Party policy failures.

Without a doubt, fear is being used to motivate New Zealanders into getting the vaccine. It appears to be a key part of their strategy. And while the delta outbreak and the prolonged lockdown has provided a convenient mass-vaccination opportunity, the growing list of adverse reactions to the vaccine are being downplayed. Medsafe (the Government’s medical safety regulator) has recorded that 13,000 adverse incidents have been reported to them, including 500 that are considered “serious”, and 40 deaths – 19 of which are categorised as “unlikely related to the Covid-19 vaccine”, 5 “could not be assessed due to insufficient information”, 15 “are still under investigation”, and one death “was likely due to vaccine induced myocarditis”.

In late August, the Prime Minister explained to Parliament that the Government’s intention had been to provide a choice of vaccines using different technologies – an RNA vaccine, and “one of a more traditional variety”. The final decision however, was to use a single vaccine, the Pfizer RNA vaccine.

With the Pfizer vaccine rollout currently well underway, the Government should now turn its attention to securing that traditional alternative vaccine they planned on providing, to ensure that more New Zealanders – especially those with compromised immune systems who have concerns over RNA technology – are able to get vaccinated.

Co-incidentally, it turns out that a vaccine using traditional technology is currently being trialled in New Zealand. The French biotech company Valneva, has developed a new vaccine, using inactivated whole virus particles, that is thought to have the potential to provide better immunity against the Delta variant.

The UK government has already ordered 100 million doses in anticipation of the vaccine being available later this year. Our Government should do the same, not only to provide a traditional choice of vaccine technology, but to get ahead of the game, since it appears that increasingly, countries are finding that using different types of vaccines as boosters, increases the immune response.

Last year, the Prime Minister told the country that she and her Government were the only source of truth when it came to Covid-19:

“I want to send a clear message to the New Zealand public: we will share with you the most up-to-date information daily. You can trust us as a source of that information. Otherwise, dismiss anything else. We will continue to be your single source of truth. We’ll provide information frequently. We will share everything we can. Everything else you see – a grain of salt.”

In these uncertain times, it would seem wise for governments and their health officials to keep an open mind on all options regarding the pandemic and the future. One would hope that decisions will be based, not on politics, but on what will provide the best long term public-good outcomes.

This Week’s Poll Asks:

*Do you regard the Government as the “single source of truth” about Covid-19?

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Update on COVID-19
Dr Muriel Newman

Dr Muriel Newman

Dr Muriel Newman established the New Zealand Centre for Political Research as a public policy think tank in 2005 after nine years as a Member of Parliament. A former Chamber of Commerce President, her...