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The first healthcare worker vaccinated at Tallaght University Hospital in Dublin this morning. Tallaght University Hospital

Up to 135,000 people to be fully vaccinated by end of February, Taoiseach says

35,000 people are due to receive the first vaccine dose this week.

THE TAOISEACH HAS said that up to 135,000 people will be vaccinated against Covid-19 by the end of February.

Micheál Martin said this estimate is available due to “high level assurances” from Pfizer/BioNTech of vaccine supplies over the next two months. 

“So by the end of February we will have up to 135,000 people vaccinated with the two doses,” the Taoiseach said on RTÉ radio’s News At One

“We will deliver the vaccination programme in accordance with the supply chain. As we get vaccines we will be injecting.”

He said this will see 75,000 people in long-term care facilities and up to about 60,000 frontline healthcare workers receiving both Covid-19 vaccine doses by the end of next month. 

Martin said it’s “impossible” to put a date on a time when everyone who wants a vaccination will have it. 

“We’ve got high level assurances from Pfizer/BioNTech in respect of the next two months, that is why I can say to you in terms of those we can have vaccinated by the end of February.”

Professor Karina Butler said today that health officials “did not want to compromise” and risk any harm by moving to one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine instead of two. 

Butler, the chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee and member of the high level Covid-19 Vaccine Task Force, said the first week of vaccinations was “deliberately slow” to ensure there were no technical issues.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said yesterday that 4,000 people received the first dose last week and 35,000 more people are expected to receive the jab this week. 

Butler said on RTÉ radio’s Today: “But my goodness, it has ramped up very quickly and looks like it’s going to be going forward at a really accelerated pace, more than perhaps we had initially anticipated.

Some countries are pushing back the second dose to give more people the first dose. The UK has said it would wait up to 12 weeks before giving the second jab.

BioNTech warned today that there is no data backing the “safety and efficacy” of delaying the second Covid-19 vaccine beyond three weeks. 

The company said its clinical data shows 95% efficacy based on a two-dose schedule separated by 21 days. 

“Although data… demonstrated that there is a partial protection from the vaccine as early as 12 days after the first dose, there is no data to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained after 21 days,” BioNTech said.

Karina Butler said the immune system of older people is “not quite as robust”, so evidence showed it took two vaccine doses and a 14-day period before the best response was achieved. 

“In the initial studies, the schedule was two doses and in the Pfizer study – because that’s the vaccine we’re dealing with – it was at a 21-day interval,” Butler said.

“Within that protocol, they did allow for people to get it up to 42 days. But when you looked at the data, 93% of people got it within 23 days.

What we also know from that was that in fact, particularly for maybe older people, immune systems are not quite as robust and able to respond so quickly.

“It took that second dose and, in fact, 14 days after that second dose before you got the best response.”

She said a “very small” number of people in the Pfizer study received just one dose of the vaccine, so health officials “did not want to compromise and maybe create harm by sub-optimally immunising what is our most vulnerable cohorts of people”.

Staff vaccinations started this morning at Tallaght University Hospital, with all staff aimed to receive the first dose over the next two weeks. 

Arthroplasty nurse specialist Louise Power became the first worker in the hospital to receive the jab earlier today.

Childhood Services Ireland (CSI), a group representing the early years sector in Ireland, has called on the government to further prioritise vaccinating early years’ workers as any sector outbreaks would be “immensely damaging”.

CSI director Darragh Whelan said: “The health and safety of children and staff is an absolute priority. Facilitating vaccinations at an earlier time would provide significant reassurances to parents and staff that sufficient protective measures have been taken.”

Sub-optimal suppression 

Karina Butler said: “Until we learn more, we’re sticking with the recommended schedule and as we learn more, we will review the evidence and update it, if we can, because we would like to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.”

In terms of the prioritisation list announced by the vaccine task force last month, Butler said this could change down the line if the vaccines are found to prevent transmission of the disease along with reducing infection.

“If we knew for definite that we had a vaccine that was fantastic at preventing transmission, you might target the group that are at the highest risk of acquiring and spreading the infection.

That would change your prioritisation, and it would change the age group that you would target.

“But because we don’t know that yet, and what we do know is that this will prevent severe disease and those who are most at risk of severe disease and prevent morbidity and mortality and hospitalisations, and therefore allow other healthcare procedures go on and people get their normal healthcare, then that is why we have to target it the way it is targeted.”

She said if evidence proved the contrary, this prioritisation “would be changed”. 

But she said the evidence from the available studies at the moment does not back this up. 

- Additional reporting by AFP 

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