The State is to examine if the period between the two required doses of Covid-19 vaccinations could be extended in order to accelerate the rollout, as is being done in the United Kingdom.
It comes amid ongoing concern over the rapid rise in the level of coronavirus infections across the State and fears over the knock-on impact on the health service. Another 1,754 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed last night, but due to reporting delays, more than 9,000 additional new cases will be recorded in the coming days.
Prof Brian MacCraith, chair of the State’s Covid-19 taskforce, said the issue of increasing the gap between vaccine doses had been discussed by the group in recent days.
“On foot of our discussions, a formal request has been issued from [chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan] to request [the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC] explore the issue and provide some guidance on the matter.
“Given that we want to be as ambitious and effective as possible, and given the backdrop of rapidly rising numbers and our prioritised focus on the vulnerable in nursing homes and frontline healthcare workers, we have to consider all options,” he said.
Prof Karina Butler, the chair of the NIAC, said she was contacting counterparts in Europe and the UK to seek more data, which would have to support any recommendation or guidance on the matter.
“Current recommendations are based on the trial results where two doses 21 days apart were scheduled. The question is whether that gap could be lengthened to 28 days, as was used in the Moderna trial, or even longer, possibly six or 12 weeks.” She said that any decision would depend on what the data indicates, and would not “pre-empt” the process.
If such a step were taken, it could get the vaccine to more people more quickly. “As the UK has indicated it will do, essentially over the short term one would potentially be doubling the number of people getting the first dose,” Prof MacCraith said.
The UK move has attracted criticism, and any similar move by Ireland would need regulatory approval, Prof Butler said, adding that those who have received their first dose would not be impacted.
The State saw a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases in recent days with Health Service Executive chief executive Paul Reid yesterday describing the virus as “rampant”. Last night Dr Holohan said: “Our health system will not continue to cope with this level of impact.”
HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry told The Irish Times that measures to control the virus were impacting the hospital sector already. "There are over 400 beds out of commission in recent days," he said, due to infection-prevention measures "related in many cases to Covid-19 and, secondly, inability to staff beds" because staff have Covid-19 or are deemed a close contact.
Government sources expressed the hope that case numbers would stabilise and begin to come down in the coming days, and said that full Level 5 measures should be given a chance to work before any further changes were considered. "We've got to let that happen and see what the effect of that is, while ramping up the delivery of vaccine," Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien said.
However, other sources said further measures similar to those imposed in March, such as further curtailing retail, schools and construction, could not be ruled out if the disease could not be brought under control.
It comes after the Government said the closure of the State’s preschool programme would be extended to January 11th, in line with the new reopening date for schools. However, creches can continue to operate as planned in order to provide childcare, especially to priority groups