The general public can expect to receive appointments to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of April or the beginning of May, Health Minister Chris Fearne has said.
Speaking to Times of Malta, the deputy prime minister revealed the late spring timeline for the final group of people to be offered the potentially life-saving jab - those aged under 55.
And he said that the timeline would mean the island would receive herd immunity against the virus by the "end of the summer".
"People aged under 55, in other words, the general public, are likely to start being vaccinated by the end of April," he said.
"So you can expect vaccinations to be available to the general public by late April, early May."
16,000 vaccinated by January
He also pledged that by the end of this month, 16,000 people will have received the first dose of the vaccine.
By the end of January:
- all those aged over 85 will have been offered the jab;
- as well as half of all healthcare workers;
- and some 60 per cent of residents in the St Vincent de Paul home for the elderly.
Including a number of people who will have received their second dose of the vaccine, a little over 20,000 doses will have been administered by the end of this month, he said.
By the end of the month, Malta will have received 32,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, he said. Health authorities have also secured an increased total number of Pfizer doses from 600,000 to 670,000.
'Capacity for 10,000 a day'
Fearne was speaking after doctors criticised the speed of the vaccine roll-out, saying that only one in 10 healthcare workers had so far been inoculated.
“We understand that the faster we vaccinate people the more immunity grows in individuals and the community,” Fearne said.
“Right now the plan is to give around 5,000 doses, maybe a little bit more, per week, but the limiting factor is not how many vaccines we are capable of administering but how many arrive in Malta.
“We have the capacity to give up to 10,000 doses a day, we have the logistics in place. But that isn’t the amount that’s arriving, and from those that do arrive, we also save the second dose to be given to the patient some three weeks later.”
He said that as well as the Pfizer vaccine, he expects the European Medicines Agency to approve the Moderna vaccine shortly.
"If that happens, we will begin to see doses from our 100,000 order coming next week. So as the number of doses in hand we have increases, so does the number of people we can vaccinate."
[attach id=1010397 type="video"]Video: Matthew Mirabelli[/attach]
Herd immunity by summer
Malta is currently vaccinating the population in cohorts, prioritised based on their proximity to risk of contracting COVID-19. Right now, healthcare workers, over 85s and staff and residents in elderly homes are receiving the jab.
In February, all other frontliners and people over 80 will be eligible for a vaccine, followed by people with chronic illnesses, people over 70 and staff at schools and childcare centres.
Lastly, the vaccine will be offered to people over 55 before becoming available to the general public, in late April or the beginning of May.
“With Pfizer and Moderna alone, we already have enough vaccines so that by the end of summer we would have reached herd immunity,” he said.
Asked whether it was feasible to vaccinate all healthcare workers within five weeks, as doctor’s associations have been demanding, Fearne said that the prohibitive issue was not resources, but the number of vaccines available.
“Vaccinating healthcare workers is one of our top priorities and not just doctors but nurses, pharmacists, physios, everyone who works in the health services, including cleaners or lab technicians,” he continued.
Asked for his thoughts on the delay in European approval of the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine, which was on Monday being rolled out in the UK, the minister said it was important that EU states work together.
“Astra Zeneca shows how important it is to have EMA licensing and agreements with the rest of Europe, so you’re careful not end up in a situation of creating vaccine nationalism, that is one country keeping all doses of the vaccine for itself,” he said.