Expert warns of impact of Republic's vaccine rollout on north as it exits lockdown
A LEADING immunologist has raised concerns about the slower pace of vaccination rollout in the Republic - and implications for Northern Ireland as it comes out of lockdown.
Dr Elizabeth Brint, based in University College Cork (UCC), also said the "incredible" drop in infection and hosptilisation rates north of the border highlighted the impact of first doses - with more than 500,000 now administered.
Latest Department of Health data shows just one Covid patient was admitted to a hospital bed in the north on February 28, the lowest since September 7 and prior to the second wave.
In an interview with The Irish News, Dr Brint pointed to separate data from Israel and Scotland which showed the effectiveness of first Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs in reducing serious illness and hospitalisation.
The UCC expert said she believed it could be time to consider spreading out the time between administering the initial and booster Pfizer shots in the Republic in order to protect more vulnerable groups within a quicker timeframe.
And while the vaccine rollout has increased slightly in the south over the past week, just 7.6 per cent of its population have received their initial jab compared with more than one in three (36.2 per cent) in the north.
Dr Brint acknowledged the British government "took a very big gamble" by delaying the gap to 12 weeks between the Pfizer shots - the manufacturer recommended it should be three weeks - but said latest research showed it had "paid off".
"When you see a very potent immune response like that, it tends not to disappear overnight," she said.
"In terms of the vaccine rollout, north and south will probably converge by September. The data the taoiseach has given out is based on having most of the population vaccinated by the end of the summer with one dose.
"We’re still going through over-85s. My parents are in their mid-70s, they haven’t had a glimpse of the vaccine yet and it could be the end of March before they get a phone call.
"So there is clearly a discrepancy on the island. If you are going to have a high population rate vaccinated, your caseload will come down and ours will come down more slowly.
"The north's rates are coming down incredibly. If the one shot was such a controversial way to take it, then you wouldn’t see those rates coming down the way they are."
With the Republic now having the third strictest lockdown rate in the world - the north has the sixth - the 'roadmap' exit plan for Northern Ireland is due to be published today but will not be date driven.
The highest level of restrictions will remain in place in the Republic at least April 5. However, its schools began a phased return yesterday, a week ahead of the north.
Dr Brint added: "The north will start opening up its economy when ours is firmly shut, and we will have people travelling over the border who haven’t been vaccinated. That will facilitate spread among the people still waiting for their vaccine or possibly for their second dose."
The immunologist said she was also aware of some suggestions about "pooling" vaccines to ensure faster rollout in the Republic - but didn't think this was a "realistic" option.
"But what I do think very firmly is that we should not be vaccinating anyone who has had a Covid-19 positive test in the past six months," she said,
"They’ve had Covid, they’ve had a positive test so they’ll have antibodies. They’ve had the disease so surely it’s more important to give the vaccine to people who haven’t seen the disease. For us, that’s more than 220,000 people. So there’s 220,000 vaccines which don’t need to go towards that cohort at the moment."