Covid-19 booster shots in winter under consideration

HSE examining how vaccine booster programme would work if it is called upon

Senior sources involved in the vaccine rollout believe a booster programme will likely take place, perhaps in November or December. Photograph: Getty Images

Senior sources involved in the vaccine rollout believe a booster programme will likely take place, perhaps in November or December. Photograph: Getty Images

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Booster shots of Covid-19 could be rolled out over the winter, with initial preparations under way within the Health Service Executive (HSE) to develop such a programme.

It is understood the executive is beginning to look at how booster campaigns of Covid-19 vaccines would work in practice, if it is called upon.

Senior sources involved in the vaccine rollout believe a booster programme will likely take place, perhaps in November or December. However, no decision has been taken yet, and it would need to be informed by advice on the usefulness of boosters, as well as potentially the mixing of different shots.

Factors under consideration for planning the rollout include whether it should retain some of the workforce and capacity associated with the mass vaccination centres to be ready for any requirement to give booster shots to segments of the population, or everyone in the country again.

Much will depend on whether the vulnerable alone are targeted for booster shots, or if it is more widespread, sources said. There will also be significant immunity in the population from the initial vaccine rollout under way since January.

Changes in the storage requirements for mRNA vaccines could also give more flexibility than the first rollout, sources said.

Mixing issue

Advice from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) on mixing and matching vaccines would also open up options for booster shots – for example, giving someone who received AstraZeneca a shot of Pfizer over winter. Advice is expected from Niac on the mixing issue, as well as administering vaccines to those aged 12-15 years old, is expected shortly – perhaps as soon as next week.

In the UK, the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation has issued interim advice that the most vulnerable to the virus could be given boosters from September onwards. The latest advice from the European Medicines Agency is that it is “too early to say” if booster doses will be needed, and that there is not yet enough data to understand how long the protection is from Covid-19 vaccines.

Elsewhere, the head of the HSE’s testing and tracing system, Niamh O’Beirne, has said it may not be forced to use antigen testing for close contacts until after the bank holiday.

Earlier this week, the Cabinet was warned that the HSE expected to run out of surge capacity for the gold-standard PCR test – about 20,000 per day – next week. At that juncture, the HSE planned to deploy antigen testing for close contacts aged over 13.

However, Ms O’Beirne told The Irish Times on Friday: “I think we can hold out at least another week.” She said that community testing demand had been steady this week at about 15,000 a day. “Cases are up but we’re still managing, we’ll just keep sticking with that. While we’re managing, we’ll manage.”

She said the anticipated date when antigen testing would have to be deployed was now the week following the August bank holiday. Ministers were told during the week that in the week up to July 19th, there had been a 21 per cent increase in walk-in referrals, and that referrals from the international travel portal grew by 27 per cent to 8,012.

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