A controversial decision to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine may be reviewed by the UK body that advises the Department of Health here, it has emerged.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is understood to be investigating claims the first dose of the vaccine is not as effective as previously thought, a senior Department of Health official has said.
Patricia Donnelly, who heads up the local vaccination programme, said she believes the JCVI is speaking to officials in Israel about emerging evidence from there that suggests the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab could be as low as 33% following the first dose. Ms Donnelly was challenged about the second dose delay policy by People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll when she appeared in front of Stormont's health committee yesterday.
Raising concerns that the Department of Health is "going along with the Tory approach", Mr Carroll asked Ms Donnelly whether she is confident that delaying the second dose of the vaccine is safe.
She said: "I am aware of the media reports about the experience in Israel.
"As I understand it, the JCVI are considering that evidence and have been directly in contact with the Israeli authorities to try and understand what that evidence will be and I suspect that they will then, it would be the normal process, they will then review it and they may or may not issue further advice to us about it.
"So, our responsibility in the vaccine programme is to act on that advice, I don't think that any of us feel that we are the competent authority to say what the best approach to this is.
"However, whatever the scientific advice that comes forward, we will follow it in the vaccination programme, and I suppose I would want people to have confidence that we will do the very best that we can and we will act under that advice and as quickly as possible under that advice."
Ms Donnelly also revealed to the health committee that an additional 44,000 people here have received a Covid-19 jab as a result of delaying the second dose for healthcare workers.
The policy, which means people receive their second dose at 12 weeks instead of the three weeks recommended by the manufacturer, has proved to be extremely contentious and a furious row erupted between the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Department of Health over the matter.
The BMA accused officials of treating healthcare staff like guinea pigs, while the Department of Health insisted the move is safe and will benefit more people in less time.
The Department of Health stressed it is following JCVI advice, which has been based on a review of the impact of the pandemic to date and data on the vaccines, and said the position has been endorsed by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.
However, Dr Tom Black from the BMA said yesterday: "Our members are telling us they feel betrayed - the World Health Organisation, US Food and Drug Administration, Dr Anthony Fauci, the European Medicines Agency and even Pfizer have all said delaying the second dose is a bad idea."