J&J vaccine approval will be key to hitting rollout target - Taoiseach

Government statement on what sectors can reopen in May and June to made next week

The Taoiseach, speaking during a testy Dáil exchange with Labour leader Alan Kelly, has confirmed that the Government is still targeting to vaccinate 82 per cent of the population against Covid-19 by the end of June. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the decision by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) on the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine will be crucial in determining if the Government meets its target of 82 per cent of the population having been offered at least one vaccine dose by the end of June.

Closely echoing earlier comments by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Mr Martin said the Government’s own target was achievable but it depended on vaccine supply.

“Astra Zeneca supply has been inconsistent. There is a key decision on the Janssen vaccine, (with a supply) of 600,000 doses in quarter two.

“The (other) important decision (to be made next week) is the one on the interval between the doses.”

He said that that decision would not likely be made until Niac and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) had considered the issues.

In terms of the wider reopening of society, Mr Martin said the Government would make a comprehensive statement next week on what might happen in May, and for some other sectors in June.

He said case numbers, hospitalisation, ICU admission and mortality numbers were all down because of a combination of vaccinations and restrictions.

In addition to the return of some outdoor activities next week, he instanced decisions that might come into effect in May on hairdressing, retail, adult non-contact sport, religious services. He said decisions would be made closer to June on hotel and guest houses.

He ruled out any international travel for leisure during the early months of summer, indicating it was too early to make such decisions.

“We are conscious that numbers have to be kept down. There is a variant out there that is very transmissible. That is the context,” he said.

‘Tospy-turvy’ supplies

Earlier, Mr Varadkar said he still believed the Government could reach its target of at least 82 per cent of adults being fully vaccinated against Covid-19, or having been offered their first vaccine dose, by the end of June.

However, Mr Varadkar said he wanted to add a caveat to that prediction by saying that it could be affected by inconsistencies of promised supply.

“It is such a topsy-turvy thing when it comes to supplies. One day you get good news, then you get bad news and that’s still happening. Even the last day or two there has been further bad news in relation to AstraZeneca.

“I hope we receive positive news from Niac that we’ll be able to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and that 600,000 people . . . can be fully vaccinated if they allow it to be used in the upper-60s.

“I do believe the target of 82 per cent by the end of June can be met, that’s absolutely the target we’re still working towards, and we’re going to pull out all the stops to achieve that. But it is caveated by one factor that is not under our control. And that is the supply of vaccines, particularly from AstraZeneca,” he said.

He said a decision on whether to increase the period between vaccine doses in order to try to increase vaccine coverage would be taken next week and would depend on the Niac decision on Johnson & Johnson.

In the Dáil, Mr Martin said there had been no change in the plan to administer 250,000 doses of vaccine weekly from next week, but he said there were challenges with supplies.

Niac will meet on Thursday to consider the European Medicines Agency (EMA) advice on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the issue of extending the interval between vaccine doses, Mr Martin confirmed.

On Tuesday, the EMA confirmed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s benefits outweighed the risks of blood clots as a very rare side-effect. Meanwhile, immunology expert Kingston Mills has said the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine should be cleared for use in Ireland as the side effects of the vaccine are “particularly rare”,

No medicine or vaccine is without its side effects, and eight reported cases of unusual blood clots among more than 7 million vaccine recipients is “relatively small”, he said.

“The side effects in particular for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are particularly rare,” he said, adding that it is “sensible” to continue its use.

Prof Mills was speaking to Newstalk Breakfast on Wednesday. Echoing the EMA’s findings, the Trinity professor of experimental immunology said the vaccine’s benefits outweigh the risks.

Efficacy level

Given its efficacy level (72 per cent for its single-shot dose versus Pfizer’s 80 per cent for its first of two doses), it is likely that a booster would be needed, Prof Mills added.

Prof Mills also said the decision to limit the AstraZeneca vaccine to the over-60s population was “wrong”. That this vaccine is now being “shoehorned” into one segment of the population is “very bad press for vaccination in general”, he said. Prof Mills said he doubts Niac will reverse its decision on this, but said he would have opted to give the most effective vaccine to the most vulnerable people. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have higher efficacy rates than AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson.

The matter is “not helped by comments saying that the over-60s are going to go to the back of the queue if they refuse to take that vaccine”, he said, referring to recent remarks by Mr Varadkar.

“We have always had a policy in Ireland of non-mandatory vaccination, non-coercion. This is really not what we should be hearing from our senior politicians on this,” he added.

Meanwhile, consultant haematologist Dr Denis O’Keeffe said it is likely that Niac will approve the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with the proviso of an age limit.

“It makes a great deal of sense to use Johnson & Johnson because it’s a one-shot dose,” Dr O’Keeffe told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

Niac has to weigh up the “very small risk” from the vaccine versus the risk of Covid, he added.

Dr O’Keeffe pointed out that of the eight cases of clotting identified in the US, there had been only one death. Clotting incidents are treatable, he said, and now there is a heightened awareness.

Earlier on Newstalk Breakfast, Dr Mary Favier of the Irish College of General Practitioners said all vaccines were very effective and the risks are “truly very, very small”. It is important to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Ireland, and medics now have a better idea of the side effects so they could look out for them, she said.

Deliveries

Speculation about the approval of the Johnson & Johnson jab comes amid continuing disruption and delay to vaccine deliveries. Vaccination lead for the HSE Damien McCallion told the Oireachtas committee on health on Tuesday that there are “very significant supply challenges” in this regard. He said the HSE expects to receive 800,000 doses in total in April. The HSE had hoped to administer 860,000 doses this month. Between 140,000 and 160,000 doses will be given this week.

On Monday a total of 8,309 doses were given, while just 918 were administered on Sunday, according to HSE data. Examining past data, there tends to be a drop-off in vaccinations each Sunday. More than 34,000 doses were administered on Thursday last and more than 32,000 on Friday.

As of Monday, more than 1.2 million Covid-19 vaccine doses had been administered, including 862,149 to people receiving a first dose and 354,619 to those receiving a second.