There is a high likelihood that a new COVID-19 Variant of Concern will emerge within weeks or months. The timeframe and clinical impacts of these variants is not clear, but it is important that we prepare for new, more severe variants that could emerge.
To support Government preparedness and response efforts, the Ministry of Health (the Ministry) has developed Aotearoa New Zealand’s Strategic Framework for COVID-19 Variants of Concern (the Strategic Framework), which builds on the plans and enabling systems that have held the Ministry in good stead over the last two years. It identifies the contextual factors, range of indicators, and baseline and response measures required to ensure that we are prepared to respond to the emergence of a new variant of concern.
As we do not know the characteristics of potential new variants of concern or the context in which they will emerge, the Strategic Framework considers five plausible peer-reviewed scenarios that reflect the likely characteristics of new variants, and carefully considers the approaches for each scenario. The intention is not to develop exact plans that can be implemented, but to ensure there is a clear understanding of:
- the relevant decision-making processes, the likely level of information that we will have initially and the length of time it will take to have detailed information on a variant’s characteristics
- principles and objectives that will inform the response, including how Te Tiriti o Waitangi and equity are embedded within planning for new variants, and how this information will support long term planning
- the contextual factors and disease characteristics that will inform the response
- the likely levels of response, and that the role of elimination is limited
- the suite of baseline measures that we will need in place ahead of the response
- assurance on baseline measures
- the social and economic impacts, and impacts on communities that would inform decisions
- how New Zealand’s response sits within the global context.
Planning for new variants of concern needs to occur at all levels, from global and national level responses to local and community-based responses. The initial Strategic Framework is focussed on the national health response. Further regional and local responses will be developed.