The part Kenny show on news talk with Marter private network during current restrictions. Don't ignore your health concerns. Our expert team is ready to help. Now, speaking of Northern Ireland, with almost 450000 people vaccinated, hospital admissions plummeting and lockdown measures in place until April the 1st, there's a sense that Northern Ireland is not far from entering the end game of covid-19, a far cry from the current situation south of the border. So what have they done to get where they are now?
To get some insight into it? I'm joined now by professor of Molecular Virology at Queen's University, Belfast, Isleton. Good morning and welcome.
Good morning, Pat, and thank you for having me.
Now, it's a good news story from Northern Ireland because all the metrics are heading in the right direction in terms of admissions, deaths and the rate of infection.
Yeah, to a degree, this part, we are still stubbornly stuck in like over 200 cases to 300 cases daily in Northern Ireland. So while a lot of the indices and we've certainly gone down dramatically from the peak earlier in the month or in January, we still have quite a ways to go to get it down to levels that are manageable, that will facilitate the contact tracing and isolation that needs to be put in place to really hammer this virus as low as possible.
So while it's going in the right direction, I still think there's quite a way that we have to go yet to get it to manageable levels. The other side, the positive side of it, obviously, as you point out, is that the number of vaccinations are going up as well every week, which is, again, a very, very positive development.
So the vaccination programme, how was it organised? And is the good news story simply because the UK got supplies earlier? They gave the OK to AstraZeneca earlier than Europe did.
Is that the reason or was there an organisational reason, perhaps an NHS reason why it went so well so far?
So a bit of a mixture of all of the above. Certainly from the early emergency use recommendation obviously meant that vaccinations started in early December, which was a good month ahead of, for example, the republic. And that means that a lot more people were able to be vaccinated for that period of time. There has been also excellent organisation put in place. There's been seven vaccination centres organised in in Northern Ireland. There's been delivery to care homes under specified conditions.
So we've been able to get the vaccine vaccine rolled out to the most vulnerable people in a pretty good period of time. So obviously, some people are still frustrated that they're not getting access to the vaccine now. But when you put it in perspective, it's actually going very, very well.
Now, the preparation for the vaccine, we know that AstraZeneca is very convenient because it can be stored in fridges and therefore GPS can embrace that very quickly. What about Pfizer and Moderna? How much prep was done in advance knowing even before the OK was given in the United States and by Europe and knowing the conditions in which it had to be held and therefore the prep for same?
So the prep would have been related to the but the the purchasing of ultra low temperature refrigerators or freezers. So this had to be stored because, you know, of minus 80 degrees for the Pfizer and minus 20 degrees for the the Moderne, a vaccine. So those were put in place pretty quickly. I think once the the go ahead was put in place and the purchasing of these and the organisation of the vaccine centres meant that these freezers could be put in place and pretty quickly.
So it was it turned out to be pretty efficient process in making sure the logistics were in place to be able to distribute these vaccines pretty quickly.
So on a typical Monday morning, where are people getting their vaccination?
And so, again, that depends on who's been vaccinated. Health care workers have been getting it in these these vaccination centres and healthy people, people who are ambulatory and capable of going to these vaccination centres have primarily been going to the vaccination centres. Now, what they do is simply book a slot online and they show up and they get their ID tested when they get to the vaccination centres and then they have to go get the vaccine, wait for 15 minutes afterwards to make sure there's no significant adverse events and then they're free and Tollman dry.
So that's the vast majority of people who are ambulatory who are say, ah, you know, normal, healthy people for the health care workers going to ah, sorry, I should say, the care homes. There was a specific organisation of vaccination campaigns to bring those vaccines specifically to the health care centres under control conditions as well. So this facilitated, obviously, the rollout of the vaccine in these areas. The AstraZeneca, as you pointed out, has been a lot easier from the point of view of being able to, you know, controlling temperatures or being able to maintain the stability of the vaccine.
So the. Lot of that has been done primarily through GP services as well. Now, when you say I can go online if I'm living in Northern Ireland and presumably I've got my Social Security number, whatever, I can go online and make an appointment.
Are they determining who can apply for such an appointment by age, by illness, by pre-existing condition, or how is it done? Or is it now open to all comers to apply?
No, it's been very, very restricted all the way through parts. In terms of the JCB, the Joint Committee for Vaccines and Immunisations in the UK has specified what the order of vaccinations is to be. And the first order of vaccinations was the elderly people greater than 80 years of age and health care workers were the next down from them. And since then, it's gone down by years, like 10 year age groups. So 80s to 70s and now they're in the 60s in terms of the people who can apply online to get those vaccinations.
So it's been very orderly. It's been very restricted. We're getting to the point now where most of the highly vulnerable people and most of the people who were in the top priority tier have been vaccinated. So there's a re thinking now about what the next prioritisation will be. And I believe the JCP are due to report to the government on that this week and to make the recommendations of who is next. Do they continue on a need basis or they continue on the basis, for example, of people who are looking after vulnerable people, are carers and carers and things like that?
And is this determined by London or by Belfast? London is the JCB. They wrote the organisation that recommends and then it's the government that either takes those recommendations are not, as the case may be, in general, they will follow the recommendations of the CBI. So therefore, this is done on the basis that the UK wide level.
Now, in terms of the speed of the rollout of vaccinations, is that being determined by the capacity to vaccinate or is it being determined by supply? In other words, have you more than enough to vaccinate everybody or is the supply still the determining factor of speed? I believe the supply is one of the issues. I'm a little bit blind to that part because I don't have access to the production capacities at any given week or what's happening. So it's difficult for me to comment specifically on the supply chain.
I am aware that the companies can only produce so many batches in a given time. So obviously there will be a supply factor there in terms of the delivery of the the vaccinations. I do know that there have been periods here in Belfast where the level of vaccinations have been less than, say, other weeks. So there is a variation whether that's due to capacity. It's definitely not a capacity issue. I think at this stage. I think it's more a supply issue in terms of having the supply available.
Is anyone estimating when the last of the over eighteens will be vaccinated in Northern Ireland?
I think the target vaccination really is about 80 percent part. And this relates to what a lot of people talked about all through the pandemic, about this herd immunity. But obviously vaccine herd immunity is a lot more desirable than virus and just herd immunity. So 80 percent is the approximate level that we want to be hitting to make sure that we are having a significant impact on the impact of the virus transmission in the community. And just by my own estimates, based on the number of vaccine vaccines that are being administered on a weekly basis, I reckon by the mid mid to late August, we'll be looking at 80 percent of the population being vaccinated.
And the question of the gap between first and second jobs, I presume the same policies being followed in Northern Ireland as in the UK, that they extended the AstraZeneca out to 12 weeks. Are they going to do are they doing the same with Pfizer?
They are doing the same with all the vaccines, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, that this is a calculated risk that the JCB have taken part. The thinking behind it is that if we get one vaccine in to many, many more people, the consequences on reducing deaths and severe disease will be much higher than if we go with two vaccine doses under the normal regimen. So calculated risk a risk nonetheless, but a calculated risk. And some of the data coming out from places like Israel is suggesting that it may actually have been the right way to go.
I just seen data from a study just over the weekend, actually, I was looking back over it and data from Israel suggesting that the single dose of the of the vaccine, the Phizer vaccine in this case, has inefficacy of about 85 percent in preventing covid disease. So that's suggesting that you can have a very significant impact on disease and death with a single dose. So therefore, vaccinating more people more rapidly is likely to have a bigger public health impact.
Now, we know that the UK has got a good supply of AstraZeneca and, you know, that will keep being produced by the the plants in within the United Kingdom. So it's likely that you'll have surplus AstraZeneca. And I know there'll be people, particularly on the border county, saying if only we could have some of that, please.
And indeed, from a public health point of view in Northern Ireland, if you're surrounded by highly infected counties along the border, you might like to get them vaccinated anyway. Any chance of a digger?
Well, first of all, I should say that there's not a guarantee just because the vaccine is produced in the UK that there is an unlimited supply. That is not the case. My understanding is that there are issues with production of the vaccine for AstraZeneca, like there is with Pfizer and Maidana. So it's not a given that the location of the vaccination fabrication or production dictates the number of doses that are available with regard to the vaccine, you know, crossborder helping out as the case may be.
Obviously, that's a polit is more a political issue and a conversation that needs to be had at the political level rather than the the scientific level. You know, I think obviously if people could help out, it would be very sensible. But that's obviously way beyond what I would be able to recommend at this stage.
Yeah, I was just thinking it from a public health point of view. There is such cross-border traffic and although there is, say, traffic from Derry maybe down to Dublin for your building workers or whatever it might be, most of the cross-border traffic is actually quite local. You know, it's people making a shopping trip or visiting a relative or whatever.
And, you know, along that border corridor, there might be a case for creating a vaccinated bubble, if you like.
Yeah. Again, I think that's that comes back part to the rollout of the vaccine in the two jurisdictions. You know, that that will be something that needs to be had. At the sea level or the NHS level here are to coordinate those kind of roll out because, you know, if you start vaccinating people across borders who keeps the records and who has a clear record of who was vaccinated when and how and when they get due to get the second vaccine, et cetera.
So there would be logistics that would be need to be put in place for where people are actually living could be done. I mean, there's no reason why it couldn't be done. But there are. It would take coordination and it would take really good discussion and and cooperation between the NHS and the agency.
Yeah. If you could make it non-political, it would be great. I mean, the example has been given to me here on the tax screen by Newstalk listeners, say a nurse who's working in Derry but living in Letterkenny, I presume that nurse would get vaccinated in her place of work or his place of work, depending person living in Lifford Working and Strabane again, I wonder, you know, where they pay their taxes and would that determine whether or not they got a vaccination?
These are all technical details, but not beyond the words of man.
Yeah, if they're NHS staff, they will have gotten vaccinated or have been invited to get vaccination at this stage.
OK. And in terms of other people who are crossing into Northern Ireland from an unvaccinated republic, I presume the employers will have things to say about that one way or the other. Also, look, thank you very much for that update.
It's encouraging news, although infection levels, as you say, are still stubbornly higher than you'd want them to be, but heading in the right direction. Professor of Molecular Virology at Queen's University, Belfast, thank you very much for joining us now.