Covid-19: Up to 42,000 vaccines available for use this week after change in approach

More people can now be vaccinated through existing supplies following decision on vials

Up to 42,000 Covid-19 vaccines are available for administration this week, due to changes made to the way existing supplies are being used.

This means more than double the number of vaccinations originally planned can potentially be carried out this week.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said on Monday it was originally envisaged that 20,000 doses would be administered this week, but the target was being increased to 35,000 due to the availability of additional supplies.

But more people can now be vaccinated with the supplies currently available following a decision that six doses are to be extracted from each vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the State instead of five.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee gave the go-ahead for the new approach this week after considering a proposal by a group of seven chief hospital pharmacists to this effect.

According to the pharmacists, extracting six doses is achievable in a large-scale rollout of the vaccine using the syringes and needles already procured for the campaign.

One Dublin hospital told staff on Tuesday its consignment would now allow for 1,070 doses to be administered, up from 975 doses.

The US and the UK gave the go-ahead for the administration of six doses per vial last month. While the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has yet to make a decision in this regard, Irish authorities decided not to wait for one so as many people could be immunised as soon as possible.

The pharmacists say it is possible to extract seven doses from a vial but this would require special “low dead space” needles and specially-tipped syringes used in the cosmetic industry sector. These would not be available in large quantities for a mass vaccination programme.

Just because supplies are available doesn’t mean all the doses will be used imminently. Some supplies are being held back for use as the necessary second doses, while other logistical issues can arise.

Care homes delay

The planned start of vaccinations in care homes on Monday was delayed after a virus outbreak in one centre and consent issues in another. The vaccination programme in care homes did start on Tuesday and will continue this week.

The EMA is expected to grant authorisation for a second Covid-19 vaccine, manufactured by US drug firm Moderna, on Wednesday. The State is due to receive 600,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine if it is authorised, compared with at least 3.3 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Irish authorisation of the Moderna vaccine is likely to follow any positive decision by EU regulators within days. However, Moderna was unable to say on Tuesday whether any supplies of its vaccine are in the Republic or the rest of the EU currently, or when they might be available. Informed sources say it could be “weeks” before this vaccine is available for use.

The company aims to produce 125 million doses of its vaccine globally in the first quarter of 2021, but only 15-25 million of these will be for use outside the US.

The HSE is expected to start publishing regular updates shortly of the number of vaccines supplied to the State, and the number of doses administered.

Israel, Bahrain and the UK are leading the way internationally in rolling out their vaccine programmes, but many countries are experiencing difficulties.

In the US, for example, vaccine hesitancy is contributing to a large amount of stock remaining unused.