Covid-19 vaccinations for over-70s expected to begin as planned in mid-February

AstraZeneca vaccine hold-up may lead to delays in inoculating older people

The vaccination of people aged over 70 is expected to begin as planned in mid-February despite the reduction in the expected supply of the new AstraZeneca vaccine.

However, there is now uncertainty over the scale of the AstraZeneca supply from March onwards and as a result there is doubt about the rate at which older people will be vaccinated as part of this process.

Sources said that it is hoped more clarity on the anticipated volumes will come following high-level EU meetings taking place with AstraZeneca next week.

The vaccination programme for older people in mid-February had been scheduled to be divided into bands depending on age. Some informed sources suggested this week that it may commence with those over the age of 85. The process may now take longer than originally anticipated.

European medicine regulators are expected to consider authorising the AstraZeneca vaccine later this week and the Government had hoped that this would allow for the start of an escalated vaccination campaign involving GPs.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to store than the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and it had been intended that its availability would allow for the vaccination of those over 70 to begin next month.

Production problems

However, last Friday it emerged that supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine to countries across Europe would be significantly below the levels anticipated in the coming weeks due to production problems.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid said on Sunday that AstraZeneca had provided reassurance that the level of vaccine committed to Ireland for February would be delivered. He said the plan to commence the vaccination of those over 70 from mid-February would continue.

“We are not quite sure as of the yet of the impact beyond that, in terms of how long it will take us to complete that [process],” he said.

The overall vaccination programme will continue this week with an anticipated delivery of 32,760 doses of Pfizer/BioNTech's vaccine along with 6,000 doses of that produced by Moderna. The volumes of Pfizer/BioNTech are a slight increase on last week, when work at Pfizer's factory in Belgium impacted supply – just 24,750 doses of that vaccine arrived into the State last week.

The lower volumes next week are due to a larger than usual consignment that was delivered two weeks ago in order to support the accelerated rollout of the vaccination programme in nursing homes.

Under pressure

The HSE confirmed that the State received 70,000 doses in the week ending January 15th as "an exception" which was "agreed with Pfizer in order to support the accelerated vaccination programme to long term residential settings".

Meanwhile, with the Government coming under pressure from various trade unions and sectors to have their members and workers given greater priority for vaccination, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has signalled that the order in which different cohorts of people receive the vaccine may be changed.

In a letter to the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) dated January 20th, the Taoiseach said public transport workers were currently listed as group 10 for vaccination under the current plan.

“It is understood that the sequencing of population group is kept under review and may need to be adapted as more evidence on vaccine effectiveness, safety and suitability becomes available for specific population groups,” he said.

The NBRU noted public transport has continued in operation without any breaks since the start of the pandemic last March. It argues that were greater numbers of people to begin to use buses and trains if restrictions are eased in the weeks ahead, consideration should be given to making public transport workers a greater priority for vaccination.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent