IRELANDS vaccine rollout has been thrown into disarray after German health officials today warned that the game changer AstraZeneca vaccine should not be given to people over the age of 65.
It comes as the HSE will tomorrow return to testing close contacts of people who test positive for Covid-19, with the crippling pressure on our health service beginning to ease as Ireland battles back against the third wave.
Healthcare worker Beata Ziolkowska at Co Wexford testing centre
Lorry driver David McCormick with Healthcare worker Beata Ziolkowska in GoreyCredit: Brian Lawless / PA Wire
Controversyover AstraZeneca jabCredit: EPA
Irish truckers today started getting free antigen tests at two pop-up test centres at Dublin ­Airport and Gorey in Co Wexford in order to comply with new travel rules imposed by France.
All Irish hauliers delivering goods to Europe through France must now have proof they tested negative for Covid-19 before they board a ship.
Irish healthcare firm RocDoc has been employed on behalf of the state to carry out the rapid testing.
This comes as the European Medicines Association will today finally reveal their decision on the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab and whether the miracle drug is safe to use.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin has long hailed the AstraZeneca jab as a potential game changer for Irelands vaccine programme, with the Government snapping up 3.3million doses in an advanced purchase agreement.
This vaccine, which is already being rolled out in the UK, does not have to be stored at sub-arctic temperatures and so is easier to roll out than the Pfizer and Moderna jabs that are currently in use in Ireland.
Ireland was due to get 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the first quarter of the year and planned to accelerate the vaccination of people aged over 70.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly today said the vaccination of people over the age of 70 would start next month, after AstraZenecas jab comes on stream.
However, this plan has been thrown up in the air after German health authorities tonight issued advice that the jab should not be given to people over the age of 65.
Asked about this, Donnelly told the Irish Sun that he is waiting for the EMAs final decision on the vaccine as they are Irelands regulator.
Germanys vaccine advisory committee warned: There is currently insufficient data available to assess the vaccine efficacy from 65 years of age.
“The AstraZeneca vaccine, unlike the mRNA vaccines, should only be offered to people aged 18-64 years at each stage.
If the EMAs final decision today is the same as the recommendation from the German boffins, the Government will be forced to rapidly recalibrate its vaccine rollout plan as the AstraZeneca jab will not be given to over 70s as planned.
This is the second problem to punch a hole in Irelands vaccine plan this week, after AstraZeneca warned they will not be able to deliver on their promise to give Ireland 600,000 doses in the first quarter of the year.
The EU and AstraZeneca remained locked in tense talks yesterday to find a solution after the drug company claimed production issues in their European plants has resulted in them being unable to deliver on their commitment.
The company were due to give EU member states 80million doses before the end of March but this has been revised down to just 31million doses of which Ireland would get only one per cent.
The production problem has sparked a bitter dispute between the EU and the drug company as Europe demand that AstraZeneca vaccines being produced in two factories in the UK be re-directed to Europe.
European officials also warned that they could introduce a ban on the export of all vaccines out of the EU in a bid to secure jabs for member states, as they launch new rules today to monitor the export of all vaccines leaving member states, due to the controversy surrounding AstraZeneca.
EU officials had feared that AstraZeneca doses that were being developed in two factories in Europe were being sold to other buyers.
The EU had paid AstraZeneca 334million to produce vaccines for Europe in four factories one in Belgium, one in Germany and the two in the UK.
However, the drug company has signed advanced purchase orders with countries all over the world and the EU wants to make sure that no doses produced in Europe are being exported elsewhere until the bloc gets the jabs it paid for.
Health Minister Donnelly today said that the situation with AstraZeneca is very frustrating and claimed the EU are in very robust discussions with the drug company to get access to as many doses as quickly as possible.
Aside from AstraZeneca, the Fianna Fail Minister said Ireland is in line to get more than 11million doses of Covid-19 vaccines from suppliers such as Pfizer, Moderna, CureVac and Johnson and Johnson.
Donnelly confessed that Irelands target of having 700,000 people vaccinated by the end of March will be scuppered by the AstraZeneca fiasco but he could not provide any updated target to the Dail.
Social Democrats TD Roisin Shortall hit out at Minister Donnelly for over-promising on the vaccines and pleaded with the Minister to be up front with people about the issues facing our vaccination programme.
Some 161,500 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been administered in Ireland so far, according to the latest figures yesterday.
Some 71,600 residents and staff in long term care facilities have got the jab along with 89,900 frontline healthcare workers.
Some 13,800 people have already got their second dose and are fully vaccinated.
It comes as Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan warned the Government that the virus will start to increase in Ireland again in the coming weeks as it will be increasingly hard for people to maintain the current social restrictions.
In a letter to Health Minister Donnelly, the CMO warned: We will all find it challenging to maintain the very low levels of social contact and adherence to social distancing and hygiene measures required to maintain suppression.
The HSE will today start to test people who are close contacts of confirmed Covid cases as the pressure on our health system begins to ease.
The health service had suspended the testing of close contacts with no virus symptoms in late December when transmission began to overwhelm testing capacity.
This move has now been reversed and close contacts will be receiving a text from the HSE to go for a Covid-19 test on the fifth day after they last saw the Covid positive contact.
HSE CEO Paul Reid also told a press briefing that antigen tests are to be made available to hospitals today for use in outbreaks which will help speed up the reaction time and reduce the size of clusters.
He also said the number of Covid patients in intensive care is too close to a tipping point.
Reid added that there is still a high rate of healthcare staff unavailable for work this week, at 5,596 but that figure is down 1,167 on last week.
AstraZeneca jabCredit: AFP or licensors