‘Last one standing’: Delta variant poses threat to New Zealand’s Covid-free bubble
Can New Zealand escape the resurgences that have hit other ‘elimination success story’ countries?
Last week was a sharp reminder for Dr Siouxsie Wiles, one of New Zealand’s most prominent pandemic communicators, of how close the country’s recent brush with Covid was. A Sydney tourist, infected with the Delta variant of Covid-19 had visited more than a dozen busy Wellington cafes, museums and eateries over the course of a weekend. As contact tracers went to work, Wiles’s own phone pinged: she was a potential contact, having stayed, like the tourist, at the Rydges Hotel.
In Wiles’s case, it emerged she had checked in hours after the man had checked out. The rest of the city has also emerged unscathed so far: despite 2,600 contacts identified, no infections have been reported. But the experience brought home once again, Wiles says, what a careful tightrope New Zealand is walking.
“I told my parents in the UK”, she says, “and they were like, ‘No! You’re supposed to be safe!’”
That assumption is not groundless. Rated one of the best in the world, New Zealand’s Covid response has been a point of pride, reassurance, and perhaps a degree of smugness. But now, the Delta variant poses a new threat. The new coronavirus variant is 40-60% more infectious, and has been steadily breaking through the defences of “success story” countries who had previously succeeded in elimination. Experts in New Zealand are watching with alarm – and raising concerns that the country’s world-beating Covid response strategies may no longer be fully fit for purpose.
At the moment, New Zealand looks like being the last one standing
“At the moment, New Zealand looks like being the last one standing,” says epidemiologist and public health professor Michael Baker.
He reels off the “elimination success story” countries that New Zealand typically compares its response to. “Taiwan is having a major resurgence, and it had done extremely well – even better than New Zealand for its first year. Singapore is having some struggles. … We’re seeing the problems, obviously, in Australia.” By June, Taiwan had recorded 11,000 cases and 260 deaths. Australia and Singapore have smaller outbreaks, but have been struggling to contain them – Australia had 339 cases in multiple states as of early Friday.
“A number of countries had succeeded very well with elimination strategies,” Baker says. “Now, unfortunately, we’re seeing those roll back.”
One reason for that may be that people and policymakers are fatigued. Even for populations that dodged the worst of Covid-19, it takes a psychological toll to stay vigilant and adapt behaviour, rather than relying on what worked in the past – especially when an end feels in sight. “There’s a degree of policy fatigue setting in, currently, because we can see that vaccines are on the way,” Baker says.
The other is less amorphous. The virus has got smarter, and stronger, and many of these countries’ tried-and-tested approaches are simply no longer sufficient. “They have not upgraded the responses to take account of this more transmissible variant,” Baker says.
‘All those odds, they all start to add up’
All of those countries are facing some similar challenges: populations with very little immunity, a new, more aggressive strain, and a vaccine rollout stretching out toward the end of the year or beyond. At present, just 10% of New Zealand’s population is fully vaccinated. Australia and Taiwan are both sitting at about 7%.
On Tuesday, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said New Zealand would likely run out of vaccines in the next week. “We will pretty much get down to zero,” he said, before a new shipment arrives.
New Zealand is doling out vaccines as fast as it can import them, but those imports are proving slow. There is no slack or spare in the system: the distribution of each shipment of doses is carefully scheduled until the next set arrives. And the Asia-Pacific’s elimination countries are vulnerable to changing priorities of pharmaceutical companies or bigger geopolitical players. In March, Italy blocked delivery of vaccines to Australia to meet its own demand, and the EU has warned of vaccine export bans.
So far, New Zealand’s deliveries have arrived on time, and vaccination rates are on-target. But if crucial shipments are delayed, it could result in cancelled appointments, depleted public trust, and a rollout dragging into next year. This week, a reporter asked the minister if it kept him up at night.
“Yes.” Hipkins said. “It [will] keep me awake for the next few days.”
In the meantime, the spread of Covid in Australia is of particular concern for New Zealand. The countries’ “quarantine free travel bubble” has been periodically shut down by Australia’s outbreak, but, as the Sydney tourist demonstrated, cases do slip through. “While the risk was low of a case coming, it wasn’t zero,” Wiles says.
“All those odds, they all start to add up.”
Now, experts say the country needs to update its Covid response to get through the coming months without falling prey to Delta.
Some of the country’s guidelines are still oriented toward the “droplet” logic of Covid transmission that developed early in the pandemic. Authorities then thought Covid was spread by larger moisture droplets being expelled, then falling. By that logic, distance should protect you. “We thought if we were 2 metres away from people, we could go back to work with them and school and everything,” Baker says. “We now know that’s a complete myth.”
Authorities now know that Covid can also be spread through aerosols – much smaller particles that float in stagnant, indoor air. That means a space can remain infectious even if the infected person has left – distancing is insufficient. During the most recent scare in Wellington, the government rolled out “Level 2” regulations: anyone could go to an office, restaurant or supermarket, no masks necessary – as long as they observed social distance.
“None of that works with an aerosol,” Baker says. “The virus doesn’t respect one or two metre rules.”
“We need very clear and unequivocal mask use indoors, a mask mandate, if we actually want to contain this virus.”
New Zealand also relies heavily on fast and effective contact tracing of any cases that slip through the border. It has an app for users to keep a record of their movements, but uptake has been frustratingly low.
Last week prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced the government was considering whether to make masks a requirement at some alert levels, and “scanning in” to businesses compulsory. Wiles supports those measures, but raises concerns about where responsibility will fall for enforcement. Ultimately, she hopes that New Zealanders will adopt the new measures with some of the camaraderie with which they approached past measures.
“These are all things that should just become part of our every day,” Wiles says. “We got this far by looking after each other. So let’s carry on. It’s served us well so far.”