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Vaccine roll-out has served us well but we must make hard calls on booster shots

Eilish O'Regan


Professor Karina Butler, chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac). Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

Professor Karina Butler, chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac). Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

Professor Karina Butler, chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac). Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

We are back to pinning hopes on vaccines to get us out of the current pandemic trough. This time the demand is for booster shots – but for many, they are not coming fast enough.

Our vaccination experts insist they will not be rushed and want to see more evidence before deciding if the booster vaccine roll-out is extended. So who is most likely to be offered another vaccine soon?

Breakthrough infections

The need for a booster is due to growing evidence of waning immunity over time in people who have been fully jabbed.

The latest research from Imperial College London looked at more than 100,000 swabs from a random sample of the population. Full vaccination reduced infection rates significantly, from 1.76pc in the unvaccinated to 0.35pc in the three months after the second dose. However, they went up again, to 0.55pc, three to six months after the second shot.

With cases of the virus rising here, the fully vaccinated are increasingly at risk of exposure to infection.

It is important to remember that other studies show the vaccines remain strong in protecting people from serious illness.

Power of boosters

We are still learning about what impact booster shots have. It is likely to vary depending on the individual, particularly those with weakened immune systems or older people.

But in times of such uncertainty, you don’t always wait for the peer-reviewed data. This country can draw some comfort from Israel, as we climb the hill again to do battle with Covid.

Four months into one of its worst Covid-19 outbreaks, Israel is witnessing a big drop in new infections and severe illness. Much of this is linked to its booster vaccine roll-out as well as other measures, such as the use of Covid certs and mandatory face mask-wearing rules.

Israel had led the way with vaccinations. However, in June it was hit by a new wave. It rolled out boosters for everyone as young as 12.

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Daily infections there peaked early last month, and have now plummeted by more than 80pc, with the number of people suffering serious illness halved.  

Based on Israel’s success, boosters have the potential to take on some of the heavy lifting as we brace ourselves for tackling yet another surge.

Who is next for a booster?

Already people with very weakened immune systems, the over-65s in nursing homes and the over-80s in the community are getting additional jabs of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines here.

We are waiting for the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) to decide on who should get one next. Niac, chaired by Prof Karina Butler, has served us well and can take some credit for the high take-up of vaccines.

However, because of the sharp rise in the spread of Covid-19 here, Niac is suddenly under pressure to make decisions on the next age cohorts or groups to be offered a booster.

They are considering whether it should be offered to people over 60 or 65, according to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly.

There is a strong likelihood it will be extended to older age groups because of their higher susceptibility to infection. There is less certainty around giving it to younger people.

Six-month gap

How soon people should get a booster is an issue, particularly for people aged 60 to 69 in this country.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has said the extra Pfizer shot can be given 28 days after the second dose to people with very weakened immune systems.

Pfizer booster shots for those aged 18 to 55 with normal immune systems should have a six-month gap.

Most of the 60- to 69-year age group here who got the AstraZeneca vaccine did not get their second dose until early August. So will they have to wait until next spring to get a booster? These are questions to be weighed up by Niac.

Global solidarity

Covid-19 vaccines in many poorer countries are still a luxury. We need to ensure that with over 90pc of the adult population fully vaccinated here, there is no unnecessary roll-out of booster shots.

It’s the right thing to do. And nobody is safe until everyone is safe.

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland

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