Preparations for AstraZeneca vaccinations to resume amid optimism on safety clearance

Review of jab by European Medicines Agency due to be completed on Thursday

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Preparations are under way to resume administration of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine amid optimism that the product will be given safety clearance by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Thursday.

Government and health sources said there is growing hope that the EMA will clear the way for the vaccine’s continued use in the bloc, after it initiated a safety review following reports of blood clotting in a small number of people who received the jab in Norway and Germany.

The results are due on Thursday, with EMA executive director Emer Cooke saying yesterday that “while the investigation is ongoing, currently we are still firmly convinced that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19 . . . outweigh the risks of these side effects”.

Her comments are viewed in Dublin as favouring the continued use of the vaccine, which is projected to make up more than 20 per cent of doses to be delivered in the second quarter of the year.

While no decision has been made by the regulator, meaning the risk of further complications cannot be ruled out, some political sources expressed hope that the vaccine could be pressed back into action by the weekend, if a favourable outcome transpired.

However, HSE sources poured cold water on this, saying it would take several days to “re-start” as cancelled appointments would need to be re-booked and doses would also have to be shipped out to vaccination centres.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) will also have to consider the outcome of the review and pass its recommendation to the office of the chief medical officer, who in turn advises the Minister for Health.

There are also fears that the safety concerns could undermine public confidence in the vaccine, an added complication for those managing the rollout.

The Northern Executive yesterday agreed a timetable for the reopening of all schools and discussed the easing of some Covid-19 restrictions including allowing some sporting activities such as golf and household mixing.

US supply question

Ahead of St Patrick’s Day, Taoiseach Micheál Martin appealed to people not to meet today, saying “the key issue is the avoidance of congregation, the avoidance of gathering”.

“Occasions like tomorrow can potentially create opportunities for the spread of the virus which we must resist,” he told reporters in Dublin. “We’ve made a lot of sacrifices, the sacrifices have been effective, they’ve brought the numbers down, let’s keep at it.”

Government sources said decisions on easing restrictions will be signalled in advance of Easter, meaning trends in the disease next week could be crucial. Cabinet may meet later in the last week of the month to consider the latest data before making a decision on what changes to introduce from April 5th.

There were 349 new cases of Covid-19 announced on Tuesday, and 18 further deaths. The five day rolling average of new cases dipped below 500 for the first time since last Thursday, falling to 499.

Mr Martin declined to say if he would seek additional supplies of vaccines from the United States when he and president Joe Biden have an online meeting to mark St Patrick’s Day.

He said he would discuss Covid-19 and the issue of “vaccines production and distribution” with Mr Biden but did not answer when asked if he would ask the US for help with supplies.

It is understood that Mr Martin will emphasise the need to avoid vaccine nationalism and to maintain cross-border supply chains. This is particularly relevant for the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has some of its components manufactured in the EU before being completed in the US.

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