The Irish Times view on Covid-19 vaccine programmes: balancing rigour and speed

While vaccines should bring the pandemic under control in the long run, they will not arrest the current surge

Louise Power, arthroplasty nurse specialist, became the first person in Tallaght University Hospital to be vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

Louise Power, arthroplasty nurse specialist, became the first person in Tallaght University Hospital to be vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

 

The widely anticipated decision of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to approve the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, which could come tomorrow, would give much-needed momentum to the continent’s mass immunisation programme, which has had a stuttering start. Inoculation rates across the continent are lagging behind those of the UK, US and Israel, with France having vaccinated fewer than 150 people by the weekend and stocks moving slowly in parts of Italy and Spain. In the Republic, the early rollout has been slow and marked by debate over questions such as consent, potential litigation and even some confusion over who is in charge of the programme, the Health Service Executive or Department of Health.

It is too early to come to any serious judgment as to the effectiveness of national vaccination programmes. These are early days, and each state is embarking on a project of huge scale and complexity where the margin for error is vanishingly small yet public expectations very high. Partly the delays in Europe compared to the US and UK are down to the EMA’s slower approval process, and if those extra few weeks were needed to reassure the regulator on safety and effectiveness – and in turn to reassure those who are nervous about the vaccines – so be it.

However, we can already see some of the pitfalls the Irish and other governments must avoid. Good, regular communication is essential to public trust in the process; on that front, the commitment to provide daily bulletins on the rollout is a positive sign. Weekly and monthly targets will be an important means of measuring success. More fundamentally, governments must ensure they strike a responsible balance between speed and scientific rigour.

While the vaccines should bring the pandemic under control in the long run, they will not arrest the current surge

That tension has already come to the surface in the debate over whether to delay the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines so that more people can receive the first dose and benefit from the partial protection it offers. The UK is doing so and Dublin considered it; the US and others are adamantly opposed. Attractive as the idea sounds, we have no trial data to suggest how quickly the first-dose protection might wane. To tinker with the process also risks eroding public faith in it. Other tactics are less risky. For example, US authorities believe Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine supply could be increased by up to 20 per cent having noted that each vial of the vaccine contains an extra dose.

While the vaccines should bring the pandemic under control in the long run, they will not arrest the current surge. And so for the coming weeks and months, the best tools at our disposal are those – social distancing, good hygiene, quarantine and financial support programmes – that have already proved capable of keeping the disease in check.

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