Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has given "unsatisfactory" answers as to why it can honour its vaccine contracts to the US and the UK but not to the EU, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.
He told the Dáil that the company's failure to honour its commitments has created "an enormous problem" for the European Union as he confirmed that the Taoiseach has sought a meeting with the British-Swedish company to discuss production and supply issues.
A spokesman for Micheál Martin confirmed that there will be a meeting next week with a time to be scheduled.
Mr Varadkar said “I’m seeking explanations too, because I can understand how AstraZeneca might run into problems with supply, or manufacturing, or quality control.
"But I do not understand how this big successful company can honour its contracts with the United States, and honour its contracts to the United Kingdom, but for some reason, not honour its contractual commitments to the European Union."
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was earlier equally trenchant in his criticism of the company and said it was "deeply frustrating" for everyone that AstraZeneca "is repeatedly changing its delivery schedules, often at the last minute, and revising down the volumes it had agreed to deliver".
Mr Donnelly, who was speaking during his weekly Dáil update on the vaccine programme rollout, hit out at criticism of the Health Service Executive (HSE) and claims that it is missing its Covid-19 vaccination targets.
He said this was unfair and untrue. It was not the HSE missing its targets but AstraZeneca, which is one of four products approved by the European Medicines (EMA).
Johnson & Johnson deal
Mr Donnelly said Ireland has, in a pre-arranged deal, bought 2.91 million doses of the single-dose Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) jab, which would vaccinate half the population and was approved by the EMA on Thursday.
But he told the Dáil that on the basis of how unreliable AstraZeneca had been, he was unwilling to set out delivery and administration targets.
The Minster also told the Dáil the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) is doing a full population review of the priority list for the rollout of the vaccine.
It will look at supplies and give “indicative timelines” for when people can expect to be vaccinated.
He said a lot of work was being done by the Department of Health to examine how they can vaccinate the rest of the population, when questioned by Sinn Féin spokesman David Cullinane about moving family carers up the priority list. But he said that moving one group up meant another group would have to be moved down as a priority.
It was “deeply frustrating” for everyone that AstraZeneca was repeatedly changing its delivery schedules “often at the last minute” and he acknowledged the anxiety this caused when supply targets are not met.
Labour leader Alan Kelly said an EU spokesman had said on RTÉ that the European Commission was "talking very strongly" to AstraZeneca but this was an "underwhelming response".
He called for an EU summit on the issue and asked what action could be taken on the issue.
Mr Varadkar told him that there is a provision to ban exports and Italy had already done this, while a council meeting of European leaders is scheduled to deal with the issue.
The Tánaiste said he was pro-European and believed in the European project but this did not mean “you can’t criticise the European Commission on occasion. And perhaps this is one of those occasions”.
But he pointed out that Ireland was part of the common European approach and he remembered, as former taoiseach, what it was like to compete with other countries to get PPE, ventilators and swabbing and testing equipment.
Mr Varadkar told the Labour leader that he had spoken to pharma giants Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson because they have a major presence in Ireland. The Taoiseach had sought to speak to the chief executive of AstraZeneca, which does not have a presence in Ireland, but he did not know if that had happened.
Vaccines from outside EU
During his weekly update of the vaccination rollout programme Mr Donnelly said that side-deals done by EU member states, such as Denmark, to secure additional doses with pharmaceutical companies outside the EU are due for delivery later this year in the October to December quarter, or early next year.
Amid increasing calls for Ireland to source vaccines from outside the EU and questions about what other member states are doing, Mr Donnelly said the Government was not aware of any EU countries doing deals for the delivery of vaccines “in the short-term”.
Covid infection rates for hospital workers have fallen by approximately 95 per cent he said, adding that the number of staff in the nursing home sector absent for reasons related to Covid has fallen from several thousand to several hundred and continues to fall.
“The latest serial testing results from the nursing home sector showed a positivity rate of just 0.2 per cent.”
While consideration is being given to the opening of nursing homes to visitors, Minister of State for Health Mary Butler urged caution about rising expectations because 104 homes out of 580 in the State still had outbreaks – more than two cases – of the virus.
But she said that 99 per cent of those over 85 had been vaccinated and completion of vaccination for this group is expected in the next week. All over-70s in the State, some 480,000 people, will be vaccinated by mid-May.
Vaccination of a small final cohort of those 85 and older is under way. Ms Butler said the National Ambulance Service will vaccinate any housebound person over 85 and this has begun today in the greater-Dublin area. Vaccination of those with underlying diseases began this week.
Pharmacists are currently being vaccinated as healthcare workers and are expected to be involved in the vaccination of the over-65 age group.
Extend the gap
Extending the gap between doses of Covid-19 vaccines would increase the number of people vaccinated by 40 per cent and could speed up the easing of restrictions, the Dáil has been told.
Former minister Richard Bruton, an economist, said that despite the frustration with the "stop-go" on vaccines, more than 523,000 vaccine doses had been administered up to five days ago, a figure that is closer to 600,000 now.
The Fine Gael chairman said that by the middle of next week, all those over 80 will be vaccinated and "that will take out 63 per cent of the risk of fatalities from this virus".
He asked Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly “should we now consider extending the gap between doses because we would increase the number reached by 40 per cent if we had a longer delay between the doses for the vaccine?”.
“From what we hear 80 per cent of the impact is delivered on the first jab and the second jab only adds another 10-15 per cent in effectiveness”.
He suggested that “de-risking” in this way could change the “trigger points” which will determine the reopening of society.
“Clearly the risk associated with say, 300 cases a day, is very different if 80 per cent of the risk is removed”.
Mr Donnelly said that Ireland now has the fourth lowest number of cases in the EU.
He said Niac, which advises the chief medical officer, is considering the issue.
“There are some concerns with a fall-off in effectiveness or levels of protection if the interval is too long,” he warned. Niac is paying attention to this and “if they make any recommendations to us, be it on mRNA vaccines or on AstraZeneca, then we will certainly look at it”.