COVID19 vaccine is a slim-chance strategy

27 August 2020

Media Release

New Zealand experts and officials are betting the nation’s health and wealth on the slim chance of eliminating a virus and getting a vaccine before the natural end to the pandemic. 

The Covid Plan B group says today’s announcement that the Government is putting aside more money to pay for making and distributing a vaccine, highlights the narrow margin for success of the Government’s policy.

Simon Thornley, group spokesperson, says while it makes absolute sense to try for a vaccine, the framing of announcements is giving people “false hope”.

“There’s only a very slim chance that a full safety-checked vaccine will be ready before the pandemic subsides, and even then, it most likely won’t be useful for the group most at risk – the elderly.

“A vaccine would be great to have, but these announcements have the effect of enticing people to back the strategy of elimination, and its lockdowns, while holding out for a vaccine.

“This strategy requires there are no community acquired cases of Covid-19 in NZ and no deaths forever, (ie. elimination), and dissemination of a vaccine against Covid-19 that achieves herd immunity.

Other international experts concur. Dr Mark Woolhouse (Professor of infectious disease epidemiology, UK) said in a recent interview, “I would not dignify waiting for a vaccine with the term ‘strategy’. That’s hope, not a strategy.”

“For elimination to be successful, we have to do that with no decline in quality of life or mortality for other illnesses, no reduction in social wellbeing, mobility or happiness measure, no increase in people living in poverty, no decline in economic measures or at least a decline less than observed in the rest of the world.” Simon Thornley says.


Vaccine backgrounder:

Politicians, media and commentators with time to learn more about vaccines research and practicalities of safety, manufacturing and dissemination, are recommended to check out the presentation of Byram Bridle, a Canadian researcher working on a coronavirus ‘plug and play’ vaccine, at a symposium about New Zealand’s plan.

Contact: Simon Thornley, 021 299 1752

Extended lockdown is elimination’s ‘own-goal’

25 August 2020

Media Release

The extension of Auckland’s lockdown shows the cost of the Government’s continued pursuit of elimination of Covid19 and intention to wait for a vaccine.

The Covid Plan B group says New Zealand is now one of the few countries pursuing elimination and “hiding” behind its border and lockdowns in hope of a vaccine.

Spokesperson Simon Thornley says “the Government, and the experts it is listening to, are hell-bent on elimination. The extension can’t be justified for any other reason.”

“They are betting the house on eliminating Covid-19 long term and finding a vaccine in that time. It’s like developing policy based on winning Lotto.”

“It is a brave call to defy the conclusion the rest of the world has come to; that we must learn to live with this virus. But they must take responsibility for the success or failure of their approach.”

In a webinar on Monday evening, Plan B clarified measurable goals whereby the success or failure of the government policy may be judged, since the government and its health advisors are now talking simultaneously of elimination, but say the country must also be prepared for further frequent community outbreaks of Covid-19. Here we clarify that these outcomes are mutually exclusive.

  • Success will see no community transmission of Covid-19 in NZ forever, (ie. elimination), and dissemination of an effective vaccine against Covid19 by the end of 2021 that achieves herd immunity. Such a policy must also result in: no decline in quality of life or mortality for other illnesses, no reduction in social wellbeing, mobility or happiness measure, no increase in people in poverty, no decline in economic measures or at least a decline less than comparable countries that opt for suppression of the virus. All cases that occur during this period must have a recent history of international travel.
  • Failure will be continued community transmission of Covid-19 into the future (ie. the virus is not eliminated), with no effective vaccine delivered by the end of 2021, with: an increase in mortality from other illnesses (except influenza), worse measurements of wellbeing, more poverty, and declines in standards of living, debt, GDP that are at least as bad as international levels.

“We also point out that there are several infectious diseases in New Zealand with effective vaccines or treatments that are yet to be eliminated from this country. These include: pertussis, syphilis, scabies, viral hepatitis, HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, meningococcal disease, pneumococcal disease and tuberculosis. The only successful globally eradicated viral infection is smallpox and this took thirty years to achieve.”


Contact: Simon Thornley, 021 299 1752

Covid19 death risk less than asteroid hitting earth

23 August 2020

Media Release

The risk of dying after being infected with Covid19 is 0.3%, less than the 0.41% chance estimated by NASA of asteroid 2018VP1 colliding with the earth

New data released in the UK (Howden, Oak, Heneghan) over the weekend shows the infection fatality rate (IFR) of Covid19 is 0.3%.

The UK scientists behind the new COVID19 IFR estimate that the falling fatality rate is due to better understanding of how to treat Covid patients, more testing diluting the number of severe and fatal cases, younger people are catching the virus, and the virus circulating at a much lower level.

One of the authors of the paper, Professor Carl Heneghan, has called on the UK Government to stop lockdowns immediately and reassure the public that the disease is turning out to not be the threat that was first claimed.


Contact: Simon Thornley, 021 299 1752

COVID19: It’s NZ vs the World

23 August 2020

Media Release

New Zealand experts and officials are now almost alone in the world in their advocacy for ongoing lockdowns and elimination of the Covid19 virus, and in believing this objective is worth the cost over other health impacts, social dislocation, and economic decline.

In a speech the WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has made two declarations that directly counter New Zealand’s policy of lockdowns, elimination and waiting for a vaccine.

Lockdowns: “… lockdowns are not a long-term solution for any country. We do not need to choose between lives and livelihoods, or between health and the economy. That’s a false choice.

Vaccine: “No country can just ride this out until we have a vaccine… there’s no guarantee that we will [have a vaccine], and even if we do have a vaccine, it won’t end this pandemic on its own.”

Underlining this point, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid19, David Nabarro recently said countries should do everything they can to avoid lockdowns.

To help New Zealanders understand the extent of the split between their country and the rest of the world, the Covid Plan B group has issued a sample of the many prestigious international experts that, along with the WHO, have critiqued lockdowns and the objective of elimination.

Team World

Prof. John Ioannidis, US

Prof. Sunetra Gupta, UK

Dr David Katz, US

MD and Prof. Jay Bhattacharya, US              

Prof. Michael Levitt, US

Asst Prof. Byram Bridle, Canada

Prof. Joel Hay, US

Assc Prof Eran Bendavid, US

Knut Wittkowski, US

MD and associate professor Soo Aleman, Stockholm

Prof. emeritus Johannes Giesecke, Stockholm                 

Tegnell Anders, Sweden

Prof. Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren, Sweden

Prof. Sucharit Bhakdi, Germany  

Prof. Hendrik Streeck, Germany

Honorary research fellow Tom Jefferson, UK

Prof. Carl Heneghan, UK

Assc Prof. Carlo Caduff, UK

Prof. Friston Karl, UK

Prof, Karol Sikora, UK

Prof.Emeritus Beda M Stadler, Bern

Dr. Gabriela Gomes, UK

Prof. James Allan, Aust


Team NZ

Prof. David Skegg

Prof. Michael Baker

Assc. Prof. Nick Wilson

Prof. Des Gorman

Prof. Rod Jackson

Assc. Prof. Siouxsie Wiles

Serology testing essential, but banned in NZ

The serology tests today being demanded by experts as necessary to track the mystery resurgence of COVID19 have been banned by the Ministry of Health.

Simon Thornley, epidemiologist with the Covid Plan B group, has criticised health commentators as hypocritical in calling for serology testing to track the source of the current outbreak and assess its prevalence in the community.

Thornley said the Covid Plan B group has been calling for serology testing back in April, but by the end of that month the Ministry of Health had specifically banned the importation and sale of serology tests.

In reply to an Official Information Request the Ministry of Health said serology testing would not be conducted because even that test would underestimate the level of virus prevalence. See:

“The one test that would really tell us how the virus is moving through the community has been banned in New Zealand. Companies selling the test were called and told to stop.”

“When we called for the testing, we were criticised by the Government-favoured health commentators. Five months later, these same people are suggesting tests, conveniently forgetting they initially said they weren’t necessary.”

Thornley said that now the Government’s own favoured experts were agreeing with Covid Plan B, it could no longer resist conducting serology tests.

He predicted that based on overseas tests, the number of people who had already contracted Covid-19 would be many times the number of tested cases.


Contact: Simon Thornley, 021 299 1752

Covid-19 Science and Policy Symposium written summary

The Covid-19 Science and Policy Symposium was held on 17 August 2020. The event took place as a Zoom webinar, bringing together nine international and national experts to analyse the latest science and New Zealand’s response to the virus.

Watch the presentations here.

Dr David Katz, Medical Doctor and Preventative Medicine Specialist, New York.

  • New Zealand is taking the “hiding” option. If there is no exposure, there can be no immunity. Gain herd immunity in a controlled way using voluntary measures based on personal health indicators.

Dr Jay Bhattacharya, Medical Doctor and Professor of Medicine, Stanford University

  • Lockdowns only delay the impact. Flatten the curve was an approach that spread out over time the number of people infected. Strong economies improve health, and the reverse is also true. Estimates NZ lockdown set NZ back 7 years in economic value, equal to one life year (reducing life expectancy from 82 to 81). Covid will not be eradicated.

Dr Byram Bridle, Viral Immunologist, The University of Guelph.

  • Provided a short summary of how immune systems work. Scientists are making unrealistic promises, and in some cases what constitutes a “successful” vaccine is being redefined. It takes 10 years to make a safe vaccine and 4 years is the quickest on record. There is no shortcut to safety. Testing will be problematic as the epidemic abates. Vaccines don’t work well in the elderly. Bridle is working on a ‘plug and play’ vaccine for future coronaviruses, so we are not caught out again.

Prof. Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology, University of Oxford.

  • Addresses the three myths of covid19: She says we can’t keep it out, it’s nothing like the threat to each of that we first feared, and that we can get herd immunity and are close to it. There is natural resistance to Covid19 from previous infections. Costs of lockdowns are delayed but more costs Advocates a careful form of the Swedish model. Accuses developed world of abandoning its ‘social contract’ with the developing world, by closing down borders, trade and interaction.

Dr Simon Thornley, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology at the University of Auckland

  • The mean age of Covid-related deaths is similar to life expectancy – indicating Covid is affecting those who may have otherwise died from other illnesses. No research can find benefits from or a disease response to lockdowns. Estimates from other studies of the economic costs from lockdown compared to QALYs is that New Zealand is that costs outweighed benefits by 95:1. Switching from level 2 to level 4 had a very subtle effect on case numbers and probably saved one life in the very elderly population.

Prof Ananish Chaudhuri, Professor of Experimental Economics, The University of Auckland

  • The costs of lockdown are not being adequately counted or assessed. Borrowing will have very severe long-term consequences, especially for small nations and those enfeebled by the retardation of their economy. Capital flight will become a big problem if and when borrowed money need to be repaid. Inflationary impact will be destabilising. Tourism and education are big holes in our economy. Explains why people wedded to lockdown approach find it hard to change position.

Dr Grant Morris, Associate Professor of Law, Victoria University of Wellington

  • Ran through the various laws implicated in government regulation and actions in response to Covid19. Main theme was that although Government must justify its reasoning for decisions made under existing laws, or for new laws, it is sovereign – so can make any rule it decides. Calls for more considered and patient decision-making by Government so rights and freedoms are not abandoned.

Ben smith, PH.D – Data Scientist

  • Runs through a model designed to assess the infection risk posed by allowing people from other countries into New Zealand based on the covid19 status of the home country, and the rules they adhere to in NZ. Shows that NZ can allow people in from countries with zero infections, as the risk is about equal to that in New Zealand.

Dr Carlo Caduff, Associate Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, Kings College London.

  • Covid statistics are very unreliable, and gathered on a different basis between countries – so not comparable. Yet countries appear to be competing for the best statistics, rather than sharing discoveries, or comparing on more humane values. Moralistic judgement and nationalism in interpreting statistics has also been evident.

Viral immunologist says a vaccine in NZ will be “late, limited and last”

Media Release

16 August 2020

A University of Guelph viral immunologist, commissioned by the Government of Ontario to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, says New Zealand could be in isolation for years if it sticks to its suppression strategy and waits for a vaccine.

“The race to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus is certainly on, but the timelines being reported by media, and hopeful virologists, have been greatly overstated,” said Dr Byram Bridle.

“The world record for a vaccine is four years from the start of a phase 1 clinical trial to safety-tested availability. This does not include the several years that are needed for the preceding discovery phase. Further, timelines for manufacturing, quality control-testing and distributing a vaccine could be very protracted. The promises being made of a vaccine within a year are very, very unlikely.”

Dr Bridle noted that it is troubling to see world governments re-define a successful COVID-19 vaccine as one that merely reduces the severity of Covid19 in an individual as opposed to preventing the spread of the disease.

“The quickest solutions, using a killed virus or parts of the virus as the base, probably won’t trigger the body’s proper immune response.”

The other challenges for New Zealand were getting access to any version of a vaccine ahead of rich or very poor countries ravaged by the disease, and public take-up.

Other countries have more money, and greater need, than New Zealand. All countries will be faced with the long time it takes to roll out a vaccine, and the large part of their population which will be reticent about the vaccine’s efficacy.

“New Zealand would be unwise to rely on elimination of the virus until a vaccine appears – because a vaccine will be late, and its availability will be limited. It’s arguable that by being free of the disease, New Zealand will be last in the queue for a vaccine,” he said.

Dr Bridle explained that given the challenges facing a vaccine, his team had decided to focus not on a specific vaccine for Covid19, but to adapt their existing work in cancer therapies to create a “plug and play” format for future coronaviruses.

“We can use live vectors to deliver the vaccine directly into cells to ensure an appropriate immune response. We’re trying to prove the viability of this approach so, unlike other “one-off” approaches, our platforms can be adapted to develop vaccines for future versions of a coronavirus. That means future vaccines might be made more quickly and cheaply.”

Dr Bridle is one of the international speakers at the COVID-19 Science and Science Symposium Webinar on Monday.

Joining the webinar, Dr Bridle will present on what a realistic vaccine development timeline looks like and briefly on his current research project to develop a versatile vaccine strategy that can be rapidly mobilised for the next major coronavirus outbreak.


Gerhard Sundborn: We cannot lock down long enough to eliminate

Group member Gerhard Sundborn tells NewstalkZB why lockdowns cannot be in place long enough to eliminate the virus. He knocks it out of the park.

Masks only useful in confined spaces

Media Release

14 August 2020

Epidemiologist Simon Thornley has reassured people that there has been no new information that concludes masks are warranted against COVID19.

“The trials are clear; there is no statistically useful safety gain in wearing a mask, although low quality observational studies show an advantage to wearing one in confined spaces.”

Thornley says he was moved to clarify the science because people advocating masks were claiming ‘things had changed’, leading to an increase in public mask-wearing since Wednesday.

“Nothing in medical science has changed since Ashley Bloomfield first told us months ago that there was no advantage to masks. What has changed is social and political advantage in advocating masks, and that’s not science.

“I will not be wearing a mask without symptoms, but anyone with compromised health could choose to carry a mask to wear in places like public transport.”

Thornley urged all public communicators, including media, to reference the latest science on masks so people could decide for themselves (see below).

On Monday, the Covid Plan B group is live streaming a COVID-19 Science and Policy Symposium, featuring international experts analysing the New Zealand situation. Find out more here.


The Science on masks

A trial in Australia showed that in households exposed to children with respiratory symptoms and fever, there was no difference in outcome between households that wore either surgical or P2 masks with controls who did not wear masks. The incidence of laboratory confirmed infections were twice as high in the mask wearing groups compared to controls, but the difference was not statistically significant.1 About 50% of patients reported problems with the masks, and by day five, only 30% of participants were compliant with the mask use.

A larger trial in Thailand that compared control, to handwashing, and handwashing and surgical masks in households with influenza-like illness showed no difference between the three groups, in terms of reducing the incidence of secondary transmission from primary cases.2

Meta-analyses of observational studies have reported benefits of reductions in risk of using masks.3 A case-control study of H1N1 transmission following a prolonged flight between China and the US showed a very strong association between mask use and protection from infection. None of the 9 cases wore masks, compared to 47% (15/32) of control passengers.4

The World Health Organisation5 only recommends masks when individuals have symptoms compatible with Covid-19. In populations such as those with a high prevalence of Covid, immunocompromised patients or times where high population density cannot be avoided, such as mass gatherings, public transportation (including aeroplanes), masks are considered useful for ‘source control’, rather than ‘protection’.


  1. MacIntyre CR, Cauchemez S, Dwyer DE, et al. Face mask use and control of respiratory virus transmission in households. Emerging infectious diseases 2009;15(2):233.
  2. Simmerman JM, Suntarattiwong P, Levy J, et al. Findings from a household randomized controlled trial of hand washing and face masks to reduce influenza transmission in Bangkok, Thailand. Influenza and other respiratory viruses 2011;5(4):256-67.
  3. Chu DK, Akl EA, Duda S, et al. Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet 2020;395(10242):1973-87. doi:
  4. Zhang L, Peng Z, Ou J, et al. Protection by face masks against influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 virus on trans-Pacific passenger aircraft, 2009. Emerging infectious diseases 2013;19(9):1403-10. doi: 10.3201/eid1909.121765
  5. Organization WH. Advice on the use of masks in the context of COVID-19: interim guidance, 5 June 2020: World Health Organization, 2020.

New lockdowns are proof that they don’t work

Media Release

13 August 2020

Epidemiologist Simon Thornley says the new virus outbreaks and lockdown responses are proof that New Zealand must, as the WHO has recently said, learn to live with the virus.

“An outbreak was inevitable, and therefore lockdowns were never a viable repeatable solution – you pay a high price, repeatedly.”

“As we’re about to experience yet again, lockdowns harm everyone more than the coronavirus does.”

“Protecting the elderly, staying at home if you are ill and hand hygiene are the mainstays of reducing the spread of the virus.”

Thornley says it is ironic that the Government had now also decided to lock down all aged care facilities.

“This is precisely the solution we advocated three months ago. Proof has since mounted that those of us over 65 are the only people at real risk: the age of death with this virus is much the same as what we observed in people who died last year. The risk is extremely low for people aged less than 65. No one has yet died in their fifties or younger in New Zealand.

Even in apparently ‘hard hit’ regions of the world, people aged less than 65 without underlying conditions were very unlikely to die from the virus. They accounted for 0.7–3.6% of all COVID deaths in France, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Georgia, and New York City.

“Safe hygiene practices and protection of the elderly is the best solution.” Thornley said.

Thornley points out that the Government promised that the first lockdown was to eliminate the virus, and its four-day extension would ‘lock in the gains’.

“Yet here we are, with the virus, locking down again. Proof, if you needed it, that lockdowns only delay, or even magnify, the health and economic harm.”

On Monday 17 August, the Covid Plan B group is live streaming the COVID-19 Science and Policy Symposium, featuring international experts analysing the New Zealand situation.

The international speakers confirmed include founder of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre Dr David Katz, who worked at the front line of New York hospitals dealing with patients, and viral immunologist Dr Byram Bridle who is part of a team commissioned by the Canadian Government to develop a COVID vaccine.

To find out more information about the COVID-19 Science and Policy Symposium, visit here.