Scientists have hailed a just-announced $37m Government spend toward a Covid-19 vaccine – and now a major clinical research organisation has called for trials to be carried out here.
This afternoon, ministers revealed the fund would be sending $10m toward local vaccine research and $5m for exploring manufacturing a vaccine here.
Up to $15m would also be steered toward global research collaborations and $7m would go to Gavi - an alliance that distributes vaccines to developing nations.
Alongside the fresh funding, the Government unveiled its long-awaited vaccine strategy, which aimed to secure enough doses of a safe, effective vaccine for New Zealand at the earliest possible time.
A key part of that strategy was building capability for making and distributing a vaccine here if it was needed – something Kiwi biotech company Avalia Immunotherapies has already been exploring with a pre-awarded $100,000 grant.
"It's vital that we contribute to international research efforts as well as ramp up our own research and manufacturing capability," Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods said.
Malaghan Institute director Professor Graham Le Gros – who has been working with top Kiwi scientists and industry partners Avalia and South Pacific Sera on a home-grown effort – said the investment ensured New Zealand and its Pacific neighbours were well positioned.
His group was already eyeing potential candidates, including a virus-inactivated vaccine approach led by Otago University's Professor Miguel Quiñones-Mateu, and a recombinant spike protein vaccine being developed in Dr Davide Comoletti's Victoria University lab.
"Between us and our partners and collaborators we have well over $100m worth of science infrastructure alongside commercial intellect that can be put to good use towards the Kiwi Covid-19 vaccine effort," said Le Gros, a world-renowned immunologist.
"We have some of the best scientists in the world. We have the know-how and the capability. It's good to get the backing."
The group had already fielded much interest from people keen to assist, among them wealthy philanthropists and Kiwis wanting to crowdfund for the cause.
"Alongside Government funding and research grants, this support is vital and valued, and will have a real impact."
Meanwhile, Auckland-based Pharmaceutical Solutions has called on the Government to incentivise overseas biopharmaceutical companies to carry out trials here in return for secure domestic access to a vaccine.
"In the global race to find a vaccine, we need populations that have had little exposure to Covid-19 and New Zealand can offer a vital link in the global effort to halt the novel coronavirus," said the group's managing director, Jacquie Palmer.
"We have very low rates of infection, world-class expertise and one of the best healthcare systems in the world, which means New Zealand is the ideal location for vaccine trials.
"With many other parts of the world still in lockdown, New Zealand can act as a shelter for the continuation of all clinical trial programmes, including Covid-19 vaccine studies and those on hold in other countries."
Dr Edward Watson, chief executive of Middlemore Clinical Trials, believed the success of New Zealand's Covid-19 response offered a rare opportunity to global biopharmaceutical companies.
"New Zealand is effectively Covid-free, and as a result, our sites are fully operational," Watson said.
"Due to our nation's public health response, we are now able to conduct all types of clinical trials safely.
"We offer a highly sophisticated medical system and many engaged patients to these biopharmaceutical companies looking to conduct trial activity, and we should capitalise on these offerings to further grow the sector."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said border restrictions are likely to remain until a vaccine is developed, with estimates that could take 12 to 18 months.
New Zealand is part of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which is the global platform dedicated to finding a vaccine.
Around the world, there are now nearly 100 vaccine candidates in the works, with some already being used in human clinical trials.
This month, the World Health Organisation announced there were now around seven or eight "top" candidates being fast-tracked, with $13b of funding pledged by more than 40 countries.
But despite the unprecedented global effort – which has seen scientists sharing information in a way that's unheard of in the typically fiercely-competitive and secretive sector - there was still no guarantee a vaccine for the coronavirus would ever be found.