New Zealand’s second regional lockdown was a wake-up call to many. A newfound sense of urgency and hope is being placed in the Pfizer vaccines that have arrived for frontline workers this weekend, but experts agree vaccines alone won’t be a silver bullet.

Like many other countries, New Zealand’s COVID-19 vaccination programme aims to achieve herd immunity – providing the majority of our population with sufficient immunity against the virus to shield us from widespread community transmission. But how can we be certain that the vaccines have done their job and provided this immunity?  And the bigger question: how do we progress past this current state of uncertainty and disruption?

The Good News

There’s good evidence that vaccines will be effective. Recent trials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is the vaccine currently arriving into New Zealand, has shown that two doses, delivered two to three weeks apart, is about 95% effective at stamping out the symptoms of COVID-19.  This means we won’t need to fear the virus like we have been, as the vaccine will halt its ability to make us unwell. Frontline workers can continue their roles at the border and quarantine facilities without getting sick and it reduces the risk of our health system being overburdened from hospitalisations and mortality.

What We Don’t Know

A different and equally important concern is how effective COVID-19 vaccines will be in reducing the transmission of the virus. Because, even if through vaccination we can prevent symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can be certain the vaccine has provided enough protection to stop a person from carrying or spreading the virus.

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern states this is “critical information we need” and without it, current testing regimes for frontline workers will not change even once they are vaccinated. And for exactly this same reason, Ardern has confirmed that NZ borders will not be relaxed to allow vaccinated arrivals to bypass quarantine. This cautious approach is well-advised and has been similarly adopted in countries already rolling out vaccines, such as the UK where vaccinated individuals are still expected to follow lockdown rules.

The other part we don’t know yet is how long COVID-19 vaccines will last. COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has acknowledged “we don’t know how long vaccines will be effective” and that vaccine campaigns may eventually resemble the flu, with annual COVID-19 jabs. At this stage, no one knows how often a booster will be needed. This also raises questions as to how long a vaccine passport, if this becomes a required standard at the border, could be considered valid proof of protection.

The Reality of Moving Forward

Now we understand what we don’t know, how do we move forward? The only way to be confident that the vaccine has worked is to test and measure a person’s immune response directly. If the vaccine has done its job properly, it will provide protective immunity – which means in addition to preventing symptoms, it will also prevent the vaccinated person from picking up and spreading the virus.

Quantitative Immunity Testing does this by measuring levels of antibodies against the virus, which means we can then determine whether or not these levels meet an established threshold for protective immunity.

Given the promising results we’ve seen from COVID-19 vaccines so far, there is a good chance that they will do the job well and provide immunity for most of us. But they certainly won’t be perfect and, to keep our communities safe, we have to be completely sure. At the border, a Quantitative Immunity Test can confirm that a vaccinated arrival is immune and therefore cannot transmit COVID-19. This is the critical piece of the puzzle to giving confidence to vaccines and beating the virus – it is the reality of moving forward. To achieve this vision, Orbis plans to roll out the world’s first rapid, point-of-need Quantitative Immunity Test in the third quarter of this year.