The European Union’s drugs regulator said it could make sense to administer Covid-19 vaccine boosters as early as three months after the initial two-shot regimen amid “extremely worrying” infection numbers.
“While the current recommendation is to administer boosters preferably after six months, the data currently available support safe and effective administration of a booster as early as three months from completion,” the European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) Head of Vaccines Strategy, Marco Cavaleri, told a media briefing.
Preparations were in full swing for the review of any redesigned vaccines that target the new Omicron variant, should it be needed, but the spread of the dominant Delta variant should for now be front and centre of the fight against the current wave, he said.
Mr Cavaleri also said that so far no safety concerns have emerged from the vaccination campaign among five to-11 year-old children in the US, where more than 5 million in that age group have received at least one shot.
The National Immunisation Advisory Committee in the Republic has said booster vaccines can be given to everyone aged over 16 at least five months after they received their second dose of a vaccine. There is a three-month wait for those who received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
On Thursday, immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill called for everyone in the State to receive their Covid-19 booster vaccine after three months.
The professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin said it was “ridiculous” for people to have to wait five months to get their third dose of the vaccine.
“I would boost everybody three months after the second shot. The UK is doing that – they’ve lowered the gap to three months. Why don’t we do that? The boosters are so effective.”
Prof O’Neill criticised the policy of turning away people who were not exactly five months since their second dose. This was very distressing, he said. Anyone who turned up for a booster vaccine should receive it, he said.
Speaking on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show, he said there was growing evidence that boosters “super charged” the immune system offering very strong protection against the virus.
On Wednesday, the HSE upgraded its IT system for the vaccine programme to ensure anyone who receives a booster Covid-19 jab from a general practitioner or pharmacy is documented.
Issues have arisen recently where people who received a third dose from their GP or pharmacy have also received an appointment at a HSE vaccine centre, due to a time lag in the IT system. This has resulted in “no-shows” to vaccine centres being reported, despite the fact many individuals already received their booster.
Walk-in clinics for booster vaccines have been introduced to increase capacity, although problems have been encountered at some of these, with complaints of very long queues. In the case of the UCD clinic, the HSE on Thursday morning had to issue requests via social media well before the scheduled finishing time for people to stop coming.
Damien McCallion, HSE national lead for the vaccination programme, said the priority for the HSE is to ensure maximum choice and maximum capacity in the vaccine programme, although he acknowledged issues with the system.
Mr McCallion told RTÉ Radio's Morning Ireland that since the upgrade, if people were vaccinated in a pharmacy or at their GP then it would be recorded in the system and that multiple appointments would cease.
Darragh O'Loughlin, general secretary of the Irish Pharmacy Union, told the same programme that if people got their booster vaccine in a pharmacy their details were entered into the Pharmavax system, which is a HSE-developed and owned system that feeds the national CoVax database.
“The details are going in from the pharmacy as we are doing the vaccine, but when they transfer over to that central CoVax database, it doesn’t automatically trigger a cancellation of a booster appointment.
“What that means is that people are having a vaccine in a pharmacy – they are getting a booster, they are going home – and then a day or two later they might be issued an appointment in a vaccination centre by text and they are then struggling to cancel that appointment. As a result, these people turn up as a no-show in a vaccination centre despite the fact that they’ve already had their booster.”
Dr Nuala O’Connor, Covid-19 lead for the Irish College of General Practitioners, explained there was a similar lag when GPs enter vaccination details into the Socrates or Helix IT systems used by the HSE.
“We understand this data can take up to 48 hours to be inputted to the CoVax database.”
Mr McCallion said that records will be updated more swiftly and so end multiple texts to people. If a person was vaccinated in a pharmacy or through a GP then they would now be in the system.
Appointments for vaccination centres will be made as close as possible to home addresses, he said, and if the appointment time was not convenient, there was a number of ways to change it. “We are trying to enhance the system,” Mr McCallion said, with an aim to accelerate vaccine uptake and be as flexible as possible.
Walk-in clinics for booster vaccines were also being introduced to increase capacity, he said.
Mr McCallion said that vaccination clinics would close for only two days over Christmas – on Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day.
Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane has said that recent difficulties with the booster vaccine programme - including the UCD vaccination centre being overwhelmed by long queues today - suggested it was a mistake to disband the State’s task force on vaccination in the autumn.
The high-level task force, chaired by Prof Brian Mac Craith, oversaw the strategy for the administration of the first and second doses of Covid-19 during 2021, with close to 7.3 million doses being administered.
The task force met a total of 44 times but stood down when the State-wide vaccination programme came to an end.
“It was a mistake to allow that expertise to lapse,” Mr Cullinane told The Irish Times, adding that there was now a strong case to reconstitute the task force.
“We are now in a situation where we have a lack of efficiency with the booster programme and we are getting mixed messages from the Taoiseach who was putting the responsibility on patients for missing vaccine appointments.”
He said it was critical that vaccine rollout had no capacity problems, and would run efficiently and smoothly, especially with children between the ages of five and 11 being vaccinated in parallel with adults receiving booster shots.
“We need to make sure that expertise is brought back to bring leadership to the programme, to find out where the deficiencies are and to sort them out.”
“We cannot go into the new year with all these problems unsolved,” he said. – Additional reporting: Reuters