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Reader Q&A: Why it's not possible right now to say exactly when you might get your vaccine

Ministers have said the final groups will be vaccinated by September but this timeline depends on everything going right.

WHEN WILL I get the vaccine?

That is the million dollar question as we look at the year ahead. 

As part of TheJournal.ie‘s Q&A series, we have been breaking down the latest developments with vaccines and the roll-out in Ireland, trying to answer as many of your questions as we can. 

Overwhelmingly readers have been asking when they specifically will get it. And it is unfortunately a question we can’t answer for you yet. 

What we can tell you about is the general plans and timelines, as well as the factors that will influence how quickly – or slowly – the roll-out happens. 

Vague estimates

This week the HSE confirmed 77,303 vaccine doses have been administered. The target for next week is a total of 40,100 vaccines.  

Politicians in recent weeks have provided some vague timelines, though health officials have been reluctant to back them up. 

Earlier this month, Education Minister Norma Foley said more than a million people could be vaccinated by June – an estimate that was described by Professor Brian MacCraith, chair of the High-Level Task Force on Covid-19 Vaccination, as “a positive and confident assumption”. 

He said it could be right but pointed out that it is based on the growth of vaccine availability and the exact scale of this is unknown.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly this week said he expects the first 12 groups on the roll-out list to be vaccinated by the end of June. He said the final three groups will be vaccinated by the end of September.

In a letter to TDs this week he also wrote that the current plan is to vaccinate 700,000 people by the end of March, with an expectation that 3.7 million doses will arrive between April and June and a further 3.8 million between July and September. 

He warned, however, that projections in relation to the roll-out are constantly evolving. 

Minister of State for Public Procurement Ossian Smyth shared a roll-out schedule this week, again indicating that the final groups will get their vaccines by September:

A full breakdown of who is included in these priority groups, and the rationale for the order, can be read here.

Smyth said the information in the chart had been “stated on the Dáil record by members of the government”, but added that the plan is “highly provisional”. 

He also pointed out that this schedule is dependent on the future authorisation and supply of vaccines. 

Speaking at the HSE weekly briefing, CEO Paul Reid said said there is uncertainty around deliveries in the longer term.

“We know what we are committed through Europe, we know the percentage who are committed to and we know the volumes that we’re committed to,” he said.

“The uncertainty is securing those dates for delivery.”

Manufacturing issues

Yesterday Pfizer warned that its Covid-19 vaccine deliveries to Norway and Europe would be reduced as of next week as it carries out work to increase its production capacity.

Chair of Ireland’s High-Level Task Force on Covid-19 Vaccination Professor Brian MacCraith said  Pfizer’s manufacturing plant in Belgium is currently scaling up from 1.3 billion doses per year to 2 billion doses which has lead to a pause due to “regulatory issues”. 

“We can’t make predictions about the actual scale backwards in terms of deliveries with confidence, as we’ve stated a number of times, on the number of vaccines that will be coming on a weekly basis from Pfizer,” MacCraith told RTÉ’s News At One yesterday.

“And as of this moment we don’t know what the implications are in that regard,” he said. 

 MacCraith said the task force is currently working through “a number of scenarios” about how the delay may affect Ireland’s rollout. 

“We’ve always said from the very beginning of this that the implementation plan, the strategy had to be agile, we’re dealing with so many factors that are uncertain and again, we’re seeing potentially a production issue for one of the major vaccines.”

He said the focus now will have to be on ensuring there are enough second doses in storage for those who have already received their first dose, so they can have the second dose 28 days later. 

MacCraith said he knows people want more specific information about when they will get the vaccine and how they can register for it. He said some of this information will be rolling out from next week “in a very clear fashion”. 

Changing priorities

Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said the HSE knows people are eager to hear a more detailed long-term plan. 

“People want to know why isn’t there a plan for the next six months. There can’t be, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. A month is a very long time in a pandemic – a week is a very long time. 

“We’ve already learned since that list was compiled and put together that a lot has changed.”

He pointed out that Ireland went from being the second-best in Europe in terms of incidence to the second worst.

Dr Henry said that changes like this can change priorities and it is possible that the provisional list of priority groups could change somewhat. 

Multiple vaccines

The more vaccines we have from different developers, the greater number of doses the health service will have to administer.

More than 15 million doses of five different vaccines have been ordered for Ireland.

Currently, just two vaccines are approved for use – the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the recently approved Moderna one.

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AstraZeneca/Oxford applied this week to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for authorisation, and a decision is expected by the end of this month.

Health officials have said supply levels from Pfizer had been committed to up until the end of February, enabling the health service to set its target of 135,000 people. This includes healthcare workers and residents aged over 65 in longterm residential care facilities. Beyond that, things are less clear.

The approval of the Moderna vaccine means Ireland will have access to even more doses, with the first batch of 3,600 doses arriving in the country earlier this week. 

Later today three mass vaccination centres will open in Dublin, Portlaoise and Galway so GPs can receive their first dose of this vaccine. 

If the AstraZeneca vaccine is approved at the end of this month, it could be a game-changer.

It does not require the ultra-cold temperatures of the two mRNA vaccines that are currently approved for use in the EU. This means delivery and storage of the vaccine is easier and less costly. The vaccine itself is also cheaper to produce. These elements make it well suited for use in a mass roll-out either in vaccination centres or traditional settings like GP surgeries.

There are three other vaccine developers that have contracts with the European Commission and it is expected that Johnson & Johnson will be ready to submit its application around the end of this month.

The speed and capacity of the vaccination programme depends on access to large numbers of doses from various manufacturers.

Without knowing when/whether the rest of the vaccine candidates might be approved means health services across the EU cannot provide a more specific timetable for the various groups on their lists.

Do you have a question about a particular vaccine or about the roll-out in Ireland? Send it to answers@thejournal.ie and we’ll do our best to include as many as we can in our coverage over the coming weeks. 

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