Covid-19 vaccinations may begin in Ireland this month, Health Minister says

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Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Sarah Mooney

The Minister for Health has said the vaccination of the Irish population to protect against Covid-19 may now begin before the new year.

Speaking at the launch of the National Covid-19 Vaccination Strategy, Stephen Donnelly said it was a day of "hope" as health officials outlined their plan to distribute vaccines across the island.

He said an initial and small round of vaccination could begin in the State before the new year, as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced this afternoon that it may bring its authorisation of a vaccine forward.

The regulator said it will meet on December 21st, rather than December 29th, regarding Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine. If the vaccine is approved, it is expected it will be rolled out in the State within a matter of days.

We have a plan, the plan was designed to be flexible

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"We have a plan, the plan was designed to be flexible," Mr Donnelly said of the vaccine's potential fast-tracked roll-out.

Asked when mass vaccinations would begin in the State, Mr Donnelly said the simple answer was "as soon as possible".

The Minister said it was difficult to provide an accurate timeline for a mass roll-out, as most vaccines which health officials hope to administer have not yet submitted an application for authorisation to the EMA.

Pfizer roll-out

Professor Brian MacCraith, chairperson of the high-level task force on vaccination, said the potential roll-out of an authorised vaccine would depend in large part on its delivery from Pfizer.

If the vaccine was authorised on December 23rd and all went according to plan in terms of logistics, Prof McCraith said the country could be looking at a roll-out within seven to 10 days, based on previous examples.

HSE chief Paul Reid said health officials would need to speak with manufacturer Pfizer to determine the earliest possible delivery date.

Minister Donnelly said Covid-19 vaccines would be rolled out across the country in three phases - the initial roll-out, a mass ramp-up and finally, open access.

The highest priority groups - those over the age of 65, those living in long-term care facilities and frontline healthcare workers in direct patient contact - will receive the vaccine first.

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Vaccines will be administered from long-term care facilities, hospitals, mass vaccination clinics, GP surgeries and community pharmacies. The State's high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination is currently in talks with third level institutions regarding their use as mass vaccination centres.

Scrutiny

Dr Lorraine Nolan, chief executive of the Health Products Regulatory Authority, said regulators had engaged in parallel and rolling reviews of Covid-19 vaccines to facilitate their safe development in record time.

She said the "detailed and comprehensive nature of scientific scrutiny" had not been compromised.

“There will be no lowering of the bar on this,” she added.

Dr Nolan said regulatory oversight of Covid-19 vaccines would continue long-term, with extensive monitoring programmes at both national, European and global levels to ensure authorised vaccines remained “safe and effective”.

A recommendation from the EMA on Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine is expected on January 12th, she added.

Mr Reid said it had been a difficult year, with the emergency authorisation of a Covid-19 vaccine bringing great hope. He added he had spoken with vulnerable people who said the vaccine’s pending roll-out was “beginning to bring back a meaning” to their lives.

Covid-19 is still out there, and it is still dangerous and, in some cases, fatal

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However, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan cautioned the arrival of vaccines would not mean “zero-Covid”.

He said although vaccinations would begin in early 2021, this would not have an impact on the trajectory of the disease for months to come.

Mr Donnelly also warned there was a continued need for the country to "keep our shape" in terms of adherence to Covid-19 measures.

The level at which the virus is circulating in the country mattered in terms of a vaccine roll-out, he cautioned.

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"Right now, we have the lowest rate of Covid-19 of any country in the EU. It is important to remember that Covid-19 is still out there, and it is still dangerous and, in some cases, fatal," he said.

"Cases of Covid-19 have crept up again in recent days, and so we must all be careful. Mind yourselves. Stick with the public health advice. Mind your loved ones. And remember, every contact counts.”

The Cabinet signed off on the national strategy to deliver more than €100 million worth of vaccines across the country on Tuesday, as the State moves to implement the most important inoculation programme since its foundation.

The strategy was prepared by the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination, along with the Department of Health and the HSE.

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