Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has confirmed that Pfizer is to slow down the production of its Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine.
The Minister for Employment and Enterprise was not clear whether this is an issue directly related to Ireland or a broader development.
A statement by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI) said the American multinational will temporarily reduce its deliveries to Europe of its vaccine against Covid-19 while it upgrades its production capacity.
“We received this message today a little before 10am (0900 GMT). We had expected 43,875 vaccines doses from Pfizer in week 3 (next week). Now it appears that we will get 36,075 doses,” the FHI said in a statement.
The reduction in deliveries is due to Pfizer limiting output so that it can upgrade production capacity to 2 billion vaccine doses per year from 1.3 billion currently, the FHI said.
“This temporary reduction will affect all European countries,” said the FHI. “It is as yet not precisely clear how long time it will take before Pfizer is up to maximum production capacity again.”
Pfizer said it had to make modifications to the process and facility that will require additional regulatory approvals.
“Although this will temporarily impact shipments in late January to early February, it will provide a significant increase in doses available for patients in late February and March,” Pfizer said in a statement.
The Pfizer production announcement comes as the first clear timeline for the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to the entire population has been revealed, with the expectation that everyone will be inoculated by September.
Minister of State for Public Procurement, Ossian Smyth, published a timeline which shows when different sections of society will be vaccinated.
Earlier Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the end of January, would enable Ireland to ramp up the number of vaccinations, from about 50,000 this week to well over 100,000 a week in February.
Under the new timeline, three categories of people will have received their vaccines by the end of March — residents/staff in nursing homes, frontline healthcare workers, over-70s.
- Other healthcare workers.
- Those aged 55 to 69.
- Key workers and those in crowded environments.
- Those with chronic illnesses.
- Education workers
The final three groups — essential workers in less crowded environments, those aged 18-54 and those under 18 or pregnant — will be vaccinated by September.
Mr Smyth said that "procurement and IT are vital to the success of the vaccination programme" and Ireland was in a strong position on this front, with 10 million doses secured.
"In addition to procuring the vaccines themselves, we need millions of surgical steel needles and syringes to administer up to 10m vaccine doses," he said.
"The rest of the world is trying to procure the same equipment. The chief procurement officer and the chief information officer report to me and have confirmed that Ireland has secured enough supplies to administer 10m vaccine doses."
The head of the Government’s vaccination task force has acknowledged however that it may have to adjust its roll out plan because of a decision by manufacturer Pfizer to reduce deliveries in Europe as it scales up its plant in Belgium.
Professor Brian MacCraith told RTÉ radio’s News at One that the task force’s implementation model had been built around the amount of product available.
However, he said he had “a high degree of confidence” about deliveries, but was awaiting more details from Pfizer so that he could be more precise.
“I’ve always said that the implementation plan had to be agile. We will wait and see. It is difficult to predict. We will adjust accordingly,” he said.
When asked about the decision to extend the number of days between the first and second dose of the vaccine from 21 days to 28 days, Prof MacCraith said that decision had come from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee and was based on information from Pfizer.
Some countries had extended that period up to 12 weeks he pointed out.
Pilot mass vaccination centres will be set up this weekend in Dublin, Galway and Portlaoise to support the GP community, he said.
Advance planning on the remaining 12 centres was ongoing, he said with discussions taking place with local authorities.
Prof Mac Craith said that vaccinators will have to undertake a two to three hours online training course which was specific to the Covid-19 vaccine.
At the peak of the vaccination programme between 2,500 and 3,000 vaccinators will be required, he said. At present over 4,000 have completed their training.
Among the vaccinators will be GPs, pharmacists and cohorts of retired GPs, while a number of hospitals had offered weekend and evening clinics.
Prof MacCraith also defended the pace of the roll out of the vaccination programme. He hoped that data now being supplied by the HSE on its dashboard would “put to bed” any concerns.
The fact that Ireland was now second highest in Europe was significant and a real tribute to the frontline workers who had been working day and night to get it right.
The 97% take up in some hospitals was also impressive, he said. Comparisons with Northern Ireland were not fair as their campaign has started three weeks earlier. The rate per week of vaccinations was actually higher in the Republic, he said.
Prof MacCraith said there would be a significant step up in the public information campaign with more segmented data so the public would be informed as well.
Speaking about the European Union's (EU) approach to procuring vaccinations, which has come under criticism in recent days, Taoiseach Micheál Martin praised the policy and said smaller states would have struggled to secure adequate doses.
"I am a strong supporter of what has happened in terms of the European Union approach, in terms of having a joint approach to the purchase vaccines.
"I think smaller countries will have been in difficult situations trying to compete with larger states for a vaccine so this was the only fair way of doing it, and in terms of having a broad range of companies to sign up with," said Mr Martin.
The Taoiseach added the vaccination policy will enter its most important phase later in the second quarter of the year.
"The second point is that, our own capacity, and we're doing well now in European terms.
In terms of the details so to speak, although that can change in terms of administration of vaccines, but we've had a low, relatively low level of vaccines in so far across Europe, relative to what will happen in the second quarter of the year.
"The second part is going to be critical and so, the National task force that have been on the ground is working hard in terms of the logistics of the various phases of this operation, who I think are doing a fantastic job, really genuinely I say that from testing and tracing capacity being expanded to very significant levels in the last week, to the vaccine rollout, and to coping with incredible pressures on our hospital systems.
"We have the capacity to achieve that (4 million people being vaccinated by the end September), and I'm looking to midsummer for significant numbers of our people having been vaccinated.
"The AstraZeneca vaccine is the next crucial one and we're awaiting authorization, towards the end of this month on that and that in itself would be a significant game changer. in terms of ramping up the vaccination of our people," he said.