Health officials have raised concerns that a global shortage of needles and syringes could slow the vaccine roll-out by June.
The warning was issued before the current global scramble for so-called low dead space syringes that can extract an extra dose from vials of the Pfizer vaccine.
The Health Business Services (HBS) Procurement in the HSE raised the issue during a meeting of the Covid-19 Immunisation Strategy Group in November, prompting the authorities to place a call out to manufacturers and suppliers to gauge stock levels for the year.
The HSE did not provide specific details on current or future supplies of syringes and needles in response to queries from the Irish Independent.
Syringe makers are currently scrambling to meet demand for the now scarce speciality syringes that are needed to eke out a sixth shot from the five-dose glass vials.
Some European countries have been drawing fewer than the approved six doses because they do not have enough of the specialty syringes.
Low dead-volume syringes are designed to leave less vaccine trapped between the syringe’s plunger and needle – the “dead volume” – once a shot is given.
Minutes from a meeting of the Covid-19 Immunisation Strategy Group on November 4, obtained by the Irish Independent, reveal that “Health Business Services Procurement in the HSE raised the issue of the global shortage of needles and syringes, which could delay delivery of same to Ireland to June/July 2021".
During the meeting, HBS Procurement said there was a “lack of information around the specification of needles and syringes required for the vaccines in the portfolio”.
On December 2, the HSE advertised a Request for Information (RFI) relating to the availability of needles and syringes among suppliers and manufacturers, on e-tenders, the Government’s electronic tendering forum.
The HSE asked for details on the number of units (in millions) of various syringes and needles, available for delivery to the Republic of Ireland this year.
This included details on low-dead space syringes.
The vaccine from BioNTech and US partner Pfizer was initially sold in the EU in vials meant to deliver five doses, but a global shortage of shots and a viability assessment on dosage convinced the EU drugs regulator to approve the extraction of six doses from the same vials on January 8.
The decision increased availability, prompting Pfizer to raise its output targets for this year to 2 billion vaccines from 1.3 billion initially envisaged.
In response to specific queries about the current and future supplies of syringes and needles, the HSE said “HSE Procurement are aware of supply chains challenges associated with low dead space syringes”.
No details were supplied relating to current stock levels or future orders.
An HSE spokesperson said that “the HSE is satisfied that we have secured the required volumes to meet the demands of the vaccination programme with all orders currently being received operating in accordance with the order schedules”.
The spokesperson added: “We continue to place a significant focus on managing these supply lines.”
The Covid-19 immunisation Strategy Group was formed after a recommendation from Nphet in June last year.
The group held its first meeting in August.
The objective of the group was to “ensure the timely development of an immunisation plan for Ireland so that when a vaccine (or vaccines) becomes available the country will be ready to deploy this in the most effective manner”.
In September, the group discussed the possibility of a private market for vaccines.
Minutes show that “consensus from participants indicated that, given the current information available, the expectation was that all stocks would be for purchase and distribution at State level”.
On another occasion, the deployment of “lay vaccinators” to administer the Covid-19 vaccine was discussed.
The chair of the Covid-19 immunisation strategy group said civilian vaccinators could be used, under the supervision of medical personnel, in the event of “more innovative” methods of administering the vaccine being needed.
In the UK, where more than 10 million vaccine doses have been administered to date, “vaccine volunteers” are being trained by St John’s Ambulance Service to administer jabs.
Full training is given, which means that anyone can volunteer to help, whether they have experience in health care or not.
The organisation says it has plans to train more than 30,000 volunteers between now and spring 2021.