A health worker gives a COVID vaccine to man in Auckland (file image)
COVID-19 vaccines and hybrid immunity have given most New Zealanders good protection from the virus. Image by AP

Vaccine expert injects some truth into U-turn claim

David Williams October 25, 2022

A New Zealand vaccine expert has backtracked on her pro-COVID vaccine stance during a radio interview.


False. Dr Helen Petousis-Harris says her views remain unchanged and her comments have been misrepresented.

Facebook users have taken a top vaccinologist’s comments from a radio interview to claim she has ditched her pro-vaccine stance.

The claim is false. University of Auckland associate professor Helen Petousis-Harris has told AAP FactCheck her stance has not changed and described the online claims as “fallacious”.

This is supported by her previous comments on COVID-19 vaccines and her advice on second booster shots.

Anti-vaccine Facebook posts, such as here and here, latched on to a blog article headed “Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris Backtracked on Her Previous Overwhelmingly Pro-vaccine Advice and Said Enough is Enough”, which followed an interview she gave to Radio New Zealand on October 11.

A screenshot of one of the Facebook posts.
 A blog article is being used to claim a NZ vaccine expert has changed her stance on COVID vaccines. 

During the interview, Dr Petousis-Harris was asked about the Moderna bivalent booster and whether it should be made available in NZ.

“It’s not something I think there’s a matter of urgency about,” she responded. “I think that the expectations I guess, for these new … bivalent vaccines exceed the evidence as to their advantage really” (audio mark 30sec).

She added: “The recipe for the best immunity we have at the moment is having had your vaccine and then have the Omicron infection. And that at the moment is the most superior immunity that you can have. Not that I’m advocating to run out and get (infected) if you haven’t,” (audio mark 2min).

One radio interview quote used in the blog highlights her thoughts on personally getting the fourth COVID vaccine shot: “I wouldn’t be running out to get myself boosted. I don’t think it would be particularly useful. I don’t see any evidence to suggest it is going to benefit me.”

However, the blog does not include the first part of that quote in which she provides the context of already having hybrid immunity.

The blog states the comments prove Dr Petousis-Harris has “backtracked on her previous overwhelmingly pro-vaccine advice” and paraphrases her to say she is claiming “enough is enough” regarding vaccines.

The blog also references her work as co-director of the Global Vaccine Data Network (GVDN), which she helped establish in 2019. It speculates: “Is this her first comment that reflects the outcome of GVDN research? In other words, does GVDN data show that further boosters are a waste of time?”

Dr Petousis-Harris told AAP FactCheck she has not changed her COVID vaccine stance.

“It is quite bizarre how anyone could interpret my comments on RNZ as backtracking on the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said in an email.

“To be absolutely clear, these vaccines are lifesaving. Two primary doses plus a booster puts most people in pretty good shape to face infection. An additional booster for some members of the community (elderly, immune compromised etc) will be beneficial.”

A man lifts weights at Kohi Beach in Auckland (file image)
 Some vaccine experts believe COVID boosters have diminishing returns for younger, healthy people. 

She also said there’s no truth to the claim that she believes “enough is enough” when it comes to COVID vaccines.

“Not even a bit. This is pure fiction and a blatant misrepresentation … I think additional doses of vaccine are likely to be useful, but at this point in time I am not convinced for everyone now.”

Dr Petousis-Harris has been consistent in her views, including on the fourth shot. In a forum of vaccine experts on March 15, 2022, Dr Petousis-Harris, says of the fourth shot: “It doesn’t look like it will benefit most people, but maybe for those people who are very high risk, very elderly, it might help to stimulate a few more antibodies, but not in general,” (video mark 15min 17sec).

Her position on the Omicron-specific booster jab was already made public in comments published by NZ’s Science Media Centre on August 17, in which she said “a second booster is of value to the very elderly and people who cannot make a good immune response to vaccines due to underlying conditions”.

She said the blog’s claims in reference to the GVDN were “creative” but false, adding: “If the GVDN studies discover anything new it will be publicly disseminated as per the spirit of the network and as per the contracts and ethics agreements.”

The Verdict

The claim that leading vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris has backtracked on her pro-vaccine stance is false. A blog article and Facebook posts have misrepresented comments she made in a radio interview.

The interview reaffirmed previous comments she made about the usefulness of a fourth COVID vaccine shot (second booster) in the context of prevailing immunity levels in NZ.

Dr Petousis-Harris confirmed to AAP FactCheck her position on vaccines has not changed.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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