The Irish Times view on the promise of vaccines: this is a test the State cannot fail

The latest trial data and real-world trends suggest that all three vaccines in use in Ireland are proving highly effective at protecting against Covid-19

Marie Nangle, a GP from Tullamore, receives her second dose of the Moderna vaccine from Kayte Gamble, a GP registrar, at the GP vaccination clinic in the Midlands Park Hotel, Portlaoise. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

We’re living in dangerous, nerve-racking times. Every indicator, from daily Covid-19 case numbers to hospital admissions and deaths, tells us that while steady progress is being made in bringing Ireland’s epidemic under control, the virus is continuing to circulate at high levels. A new, more transmissible strain, now dominant on the island, means the progress of recent weeks could easily go into reverse. Little wonder that an air of despondency hangs over society as the country enters yet another phase of lockdown.

It will be meagre consolation to those who have lost loved ones, seen their businesses collapse or joined the swelling ranks of the unemployed, but amidst the gloom this week there were significant reasons for hope and optimism as we emerge from the long winter. Nearly all relate to vaccines, where the latest trial data and real-world trends suggest that all three vaccines in use in Ireland are proving highly effective at protecting against disease, with growing evidence that they are playing a role in suppressing transmission as well.

The first major peer-reviewed study of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the community, based on 1.2 million people in Israel, found that two doses cut symptomatic cases by 94 per cent and severe illness by 92 per cent. A separate study in Scotland concluded that the chance of hospitalisation from four to six weeks after vaccination was 94 per cent lower after one shot of the AstraZeneca product. That should allay concerns generated by the ill-advised denigration of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the group of unions representing Irish healthcare staff. There was further good news from the US, meanwhile, where the drugs regulator found the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is expected to be approved in the EU next month, was extremely effective at protecting against severe disease and death. Here, authorities are already reporting evidence of a vaccine effect in care homes and hospitals.

Proof that the vaccines work better than most experts would have dared hope comes at a time when distribution in Ireland is about to ramp up dramatically. From early April, according to official projections, the State will be administering 250,000 shots a week, and by the end of June some 80 per cent of adults will have received at least one injection.

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Vaccines will not rid the world of Covid-19. In the short-term, their effect will be marginal, and that means Government must act with much more urgency in areas such as quarantine. But within weeks, and certainly months, vaccines will offer a route out of the crisis. It’s therefore essential that the Government has the logistical and communications infrastructure in place to get shots into arms as soon as they arrive here in large numbers. The State may never face a bigger test of its capacities in so short a time. It cannot fail.