The Irish Times view on the vaccination campaign: a race against the Delta variant

The Government could speed up the programme by offering those who have had one AstraZeneca shot an mRNA jab or delaying vaccines for people who have had Covid-19

 

It’s now a straight race between the Delta variant and the vaccination programme. This Covid-19 strain, which is on course to become the dominant form of the virus in Europe, has alarmed public health specialists because of the ease with which it spreads, the higher risk of hospitalisation it poses and the stronger resistance it is putting up against some vaccines.

The Delta variant now accounts for 90 per cent of all Covid-19 cases in Britain, where its spread, at a time when restrictions are being eased, has resulted in an increase in new cases of the disease as well as rising hospital admissions. The European Centre for Disease Control estimates that the variant will soon make up the same proportion of Covid-19 cases across Europe. The good news is that full vaccination provides high protection against Delta and its consequences. In the Republic, that means that a quarter of the adult population is protected, including a large share of older people.

If by the end of next week the disease indicators are causing alarm, and there is a real danger of having to reimpose closures later in summer

But because Delta is circulating so rapidly, it could derail reopening plans unless the vaccination campaign keeps ahead of it. At present, the variant accounts for around 20 per cent of Covid-19 cases in the State, but that will increase. Younger people are largely unprotected against it. More worryingly, there are significant middle-aged and older groups who also remain vulnerable. For example, official figures suggest that just 122,000 of the estimated 490,000 people aged between 60 and 69 had been fully vaccinated. That cohort is mostly receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, which offers 60 per cent protection against Delta after two doses but only 33 per cent after one. The interval between doses is being reduced from 12 to eight weeks, but it will still take time before that cohort has full coverage.

The answer to the looming threat from the Delta variant is to vaccinate people as quickly as possible. Here the State is operating under some constraints. Deliveries of the Johnson & Johnson jabs have been at the lower end of expectations, and in any case restrictions on its use, and on use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, mean significant amounts of incoming stock will go unused anyway. But there are other measures the Government could take, such as offering those who have had one AstraZeneca shot an mRNA jab or delaying the vaccination of people who have recovered from Covid-19 and therefore already have antibodies that we know last for at least nine months.

It must also keep its options open on the reopening of indoor dining and drinking, scheduled for July 5th. Delaying that step by a few weeks could allow for the vaccination of hundreds of thousands of extra people before pubs and restaurants open their doors. It may not come to this, but if by the end of next week the disease indicators are causing alarm, and there is a real danger of having to reimpose closures later in the summer, a short delay could be the least worst option.

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