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400,000 booster doses on verge of being binned in Ireland

More than 400,000 doses of booster Covid vaccines held by Irish family doctors are set to expire in the next two weeks if enough people do not present themselves for booster jabs.

Healthcare sources said last week that GPs have an estimated 244,000 doses of Pfizer and 160,000 of Moderna in stock, set to expire within the next fortnight, The Times reports.

The news comes as Ireland and other EU countries were recently warned that they cannot “booster” their way through the Covid crisis with another vaccine every three to four months because of a risk of overloading the immune system. The stark warning came earlier this month from a top official, Marco Cavaleri, head of vaccine strategy in the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – an organisation which gives the green light on Covid-19 medicines here.

Last month, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that only 50 per cent of Ireland’s adult population had received a booster jab, which is just 37.4 per cent of the total population. 2.3 million jabs are reported to have been administered nationwide, but such a huge excess of booster doses evidences a fall in the expected demand for injections. One reason cited is because a large section of the population cannot get booster shots for at least three months following Covid-19 infection; infection rates rose significantly with the recent spread of the Omicron variant.

In December, a spotlight was thrown onto no-shows for Covid booster appointments across Ireland. Last month, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that only 93,000 people had shown up during the first week of December for 180,000 appointments for boosters, as he suggested that there did not appear to be the “same urgency” for boosters as for the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccines.

GPs across Ireland have reportedly injected 1 million boosters since December. The Times reports that healthcare sources said last week that GPs have an estimated 244,000 doses of Pfizer and 160,000 of Moderna in stock, with expiry dates fast approaching in the next fortnight. The mRNA vaccines can be stored for a maximum of six months at “ultra-low” temperatures ranging from minus 15C to minus 60C. Once distributed to GP clinics, vaccination centres and pharmacies, however, the shots are stored at refrigerator temperatures and have to be used within 28 days.

One healthcare source told The Times that there will be a “significant challenge” to use up the remaining supply before the end of the month.

“A lot of people got Covid over Christmas and if you were one of them you can’t get the booster for three months. GPs have noticed a significant fall-off in the numbers coming forward since Christmas, so there will be a significant challenge now to use up the supply they have in stock before the end of the month.”

Addressing the issue of booster shots going to waste, the HSE said that while “robust pharmaceutical inventory management principles” were put into practise at vaccination sites, it was inevitable that demand would be unpredictable and attendances would fluctuate as the booster programme advanced.

A spokeswoman for the HSE told The Times: “Wastage levels are monitored across our vaccination channels. However, there is always a risk associated with ensuring sufficient stock across all vaccination channels, including GP practices, and balancing that with people coming forward in adequate numbers. The priority has to be facilitating those who do come forward.

“Our primary objective remains the same: we want as many people as possible to avail of the booster vaccine to minimise the health risks associated with Covid-19.”

It comes as HSE chief executive Paul Reid admitted last week that 30 per cent of Covid-19 cases in hospital were among patients admitted for medical reasons not related to Covid-19. The number of patients with the virus in hospitals across Ireland is down, according to HSE figures from the end of last week.

In December, an Irish vaccine expert spoke out on the Government’s reliance on a booster jab programme. Dr Anne Moore from University College Cork said that giving people a booster jab every few months to combat new variants and waning protection is not “plausible”.

Dr Anne Moore said that the rollout of a fourth dose is likely in the coming months in Ireland as the UK considers an additional dose for older people and Israel offers a fourth vaccine dose to healthcare workers.

“We need more data on the variant and also on the vaccine,” Dr Moore said. “When you give the same vaccine every few months it will begin to plateau and we don’t know when that is so it isn’t plausible. Maybe we need a fourth vaccine against Omicron, but beyond that we don’t know much else.”

She added: “If this is going to become a longer vaccine programme it would require new vaccines, ones that can combat more variants and reduce transmissibility.”

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