The prime minister's former chief science advisor Peter Gluckman says the world may have come to grips with the "arms race" between the covid vaccine and virus by the time the Paris summer Olympics roll round in 2024 more than three years from now.

Gluckman, director at Auckland University's think tank Koi Tū and chair of the covid scenarios project at the International Science Council, believes the race will be between the "global north and the global south" in the new post-pandemic world.

He said that will be marked by rich countries with "high viral loads" and exposure, and countries like New Zealand with "minimal viral loads" that can afford vaccination and revaccination. 

"Others, like Vietnam, also have low viral loads with highly susceptible populations but are challenged by the cost of vaccination. There is also the reality that vaccine production is not unlimited and recurrent vaccination may be needed."

He told the Institute of Directors' annual leadership conference in Auckland on Wednesday it would take three to four years until all populations are vaccinated to a high enough level.

Gluckman said not everyone will get vaccinated. "And if revaccination is needed and demanded by the global north, where will the vaccine supplies be for the global south?"

The latest vaccine statistics from the Ministry of Health say about 5% of the NZ population has so far had at least one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

That lags behind most countries in the OECD, including Australia, which is tracking at about double NZ's rate. 

The slow uptake of vaccines has already impacted NZ's standing in the international community, slipping below Singapore in the latest Bloomberg covid-19 resilience country index. That is scored on the basis of fatalities, test rates and vaccination data.

Living with it

Gluckman said the most likely long term outcome is the endemic presence of the virus, with a need for ongoing vaccinations, and accepting there will be a "level of residual endemic risk to those who do not get vaccinated".

There were also ongoing social impacts, he said.

Outside of the loss of jobs and businesses, there will be specific long term impacts on the young.

"Youth were already showing high rates of mental morbidity prior to covid and the virus can only exacerbate matters," he said.

In NZ, those issues have been put into the "too hard" basket but will have to be addressed.

While NZ had been "lucky to be an island with a giant moat with all the advantages for border control", there was a hard decision looming on how to open tightly shut borders with a susceptible population.

Window of opportunity

"At some point the combination of vaccine and acceptance of a low endemic rate of infection is inevitable. We can't live in a covid free bubble forever."

He said reengaging with the world could be much harder than isolating ourselves from it. 

An important part of that will be taking advantage of NZ's current positive reputation to attract entrepreneurs into the country while there is a "window of opportunity".

But that window was "already narrowing" and NZ's privileged position will evaporate in the near future. 

He said whichever way NZ exits the current situation, it won't be into a "business as usual" world.