Year in Review: Supporting the COVID-19 response

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, we have had two priorities – to support the health sector to respond to the pandemic, and to ensure New Zealanders continue to have access to the funded medicines and medical devices they need.

Most medicines used in New Zealand are imported. Despite global issues with medicine manufacturing and supply chains, our work has ensured that people who take or need medicines have not experienced significant clinical impacts during the lockdown.

Ensuring people can get their medicines

When New Zealand entered Alert Level 4, we temporarily modified the funding arrangements for some medicines so they could be prescribed and accessed more easily. We worked through the prescribing criteria for medicines to ensure patients would not be disadvantaged while the health sector was responding to COVID-19. For example, we removed the need to have certain tests done at a hospital before being prescribed a medicine.

“I wanted to say thank you very much for making these changes, which will make a real difference. I have spent the week working on national responses, as well as talking with many, many frightened people who are worried their treatment might stop, or that they will die from this pandemic. What you’ve done means we’ll be able to provide more reassurance and comfort, as well as uninterrupted treatment for many of New Zealand’s very vulnerable people,” says medical oncologist Dr Chris Jackson.

223,663 increase in prescriptions over 2 week period

Keeping medicines available for all

Concern about medicine availability led to some stockpiling of medicines before New Zealand entered lockdown. Because medicines are mostly sourced from overseas, we have limited ability to re-stock quickly when this happens, which could mean some people missing out on their medicines.

To ensure that every New Zealander could continue to access the medicines they needed, we placed temporary dispensing limits on all funded community medicines. As soon as supply chains were sufficiently stabilised, we returned most medicines to standard three-monthly dispensing.

Part of the pandemic response team

PHARMAC staff played an important part in the Government’s response to COVID-19. A small number of staff were seconded into the All-of-Government Operations Command Centre, where their expertise was used in several areas.

Both in the Command Centre and within PHARMAC, our staff used their experience and expertise to work through issues with the availability of medicines and other products caused by disruption to manufacturing and supply, to get the best outcomes we could for New Zealand. This included helping source personal protective equipment and manage international airfreight logistics.

New Zealand Health Partnerships described our work to support them with procuring ventilators and ICU equipment for hospitals as “unwavering” and “beyond the call of duty”. Our staff also developed communications material that met the needs of Pacific and Māori communities and helped them access and use their medicines during the lockdown.

Finding a vaccine

PHARMAC expertise is being drawn on to help find a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine for New Zealand.

As part of our role in the Government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy Task Force, we have engaged with pharmaceutical suppliers about their plans for COVID-19 vaccine research, manufacture and supply and their views on commercial supply options for New Zealand.

The Task Force, led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, will use this information to inform the approach to securing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.