The Government expects to begin using the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine as early as next week, in what would be a significant boost to the under-fire inoculation programme.
With political leaders warning the single-dose vaccine is vital to hitting targets and easing restrictions, experts on the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) will meet on Thursday to discuss its use.
They will also consider the possibility of extending the period between the two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which would enable more first shots to be given.
Although Niac told The Irish Times “any new recommendations are currently expected to be issued to the Department of Health next week”, it is understood there is pressure from Government to issue an opinion after Thursday’s meeting.
Senior officials at meetings on Wednesday, including Niac chairwoman Prof Karina Butler, were told of the urgency of the situation, according to people briefed on the discussions. Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan is understood to have said he expected Niac’s advice after the meeting on Thursday and to make recommendations to the Government on Friday.
Sources believe approval will come to extend the period between Pfizer doses, but only to six weeks, in accordance with its licence. Niac will consider the European Medicines Agency’s advice on Johnson & Johnson, as well as other data, and information from the UK on the impact of spacing.
Inside Politics / April 21st / David McWilliams
One said there were “a lot of intersecting pieces to consider”, and while they would be “hugely surprised” if Johnson & Johnson was ruled out, a “critical issue” is whether it was curtailed on age grounds.
New data shows 1.22 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the State up until last Friday, against 1.49 million delivered. However, Siptu has told members the HSE informed it on Wednesday that the May target for vaccinations could also be endangered by supply shortages.
On Wednesday night, echoing remarks made by Micheál Martin in the Dáil, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting the Government could still hit its target of vaccinating 80 per cent of adults by the end of June – but only if the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is cleared.
At the same meeting former minister Michael Ring criticised Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who he said had “foot in mouth disease” due to his abandoned proposal to investigate whether under-30s should be vaccinated ahead of older people.
Earlier, Mr Varadkar told an online event hosted by Goodbody Stockbrokers it was likely to be “June-July at this stage” before a further reopening of hospitality and indoor gatherings were allowed. He said plans for reopening more of society would be approved next week.
However, Mr Varadkar admitted that amid fears in Government that cases may rise in the coming days, he was “not as confident as I might have been a few days ago” about the pace of reopening. A further 401 cases and 15 deaths were reported on Wednesday.
The Tánaiste said the “experience of December-January” made Government “more risk-averse” on reopening.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has written to church leaders acknowledging their concerns about a safe return to public worship. He is understood to have said the Government would give careful and “positive consideration” to reopening places of worship from May 4th.
Ahead of the easing of restrictions in Northern Ireland, Stormont Minister for Health Robin Swann warned that people travelling over the Border for haircuts or hospitality would be breaking the law in their own jurisdiction.