Moderna has said that deliveries of its coronavirus vaccine to EU and EEA Member States will begin today, with the chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee saying she understands a quantity of the vaccine will be in Ireland this week.

Last week, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said Ireland had pre-ordered 875,000 doses of the vaccine.

Like the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, it takes two injections spaced out over several weeks for Moderna's version to reach maximum effectiveness.

However, it poses fewer logistical challenges as it requires storage only at -20 Celsius rather than around -80C for Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine.

"This is an important day for Europe and its citizens in the fight against Covid-19," said Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna.

"The Moderna team has worked tirelessly to deliver a vaccine with 94% efficacy in less than 12 months since the virus emerged."

On 18 December last, the European Commission exercised its option to order an additional 80 million doses of Moderna's vaccine against Covid-19, bringing its confirmed order commitment to 160 million doses in 2021.

The EC granted a conditional marketing authorisation for the Moderna vaccine on 6 January. It has already been authorised for distribution in the United States, Canada, Israel, and the UK.

Speaking at a briefing this evening, Professor Karina Butler of the NIAC said she understand there is a quantity of the Moderna vaccine that will be in Ireland at the end of the week. 

Prof Butler said everything is being done to maximise the vaccine given and to ensure there is no wastage. 

The European Medicines Agency has said it expects drug maker AstraZeneca to apply for approval of its Covid-19 vaccine this week with a decision on it possible by the end of this month.

Prof Butler said AstraZeneca are trying to have "very significant quantities of vaccine available to us at that time" which will certainly allow acceleration of the roll-out.

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The Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, has said the fact of being vaccinated does not obviate or remove the need to keep up very high levels of compliance with the public health measures. 

He said we know the impact the vaccine will have on preventing progression of the disease, but they do not have evidence yet on transmission.

Prof Butler said they are hopeful that vaccination will be the answer to transmission but they have to wait for that evidence to come out.

She also said they do not know how long vaccination will last yet, but said there is encouraging early evidence that at least immunity lasts perhaps six months, and maybe up to 18 months.

France's health minister said more than 50,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine would be ready for use this week in hard-hit regions.

Olivier Veran told Europe 1 radio that after arriving in France today, the vaccine would be sent to towns and cities with the highest virus circulation, from Strasbourg on the German border to Nice on the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said 2.4 million Covid-19 vaccination shots had been administered so far in the United Kingdom.

"I think we've done two million people so far, or 2.4 million jabs," Mr Johnson said as he visited a vaccination centre in southwestern England.

Target to vaccinate 700,000 by end of March

Minister Donnelly has said a target has been set to vaccinate 700,000 people by the end of March, including those in long-term residential care facilities, frontline healthcare workers, and people over the age of 70.

He said the Government is hoping to have 1.4 million vaccine doses by the end of March, which equates to 700,000 people receiving two doses.

"It will come close to covering the first three cohorts of people who are the highest priority," Mr Donnelly said.

The planning is "based on the provisional estimates" of the number of Oxford/AstraZeneca doses that Ireland will receive, he said, adding that it was planned to have 35,000 vaccinations completed by yesterday.

The minister said that figure has been exceeded, with the programme for the coming weeks now accelerated.

"The plan this week and next was for 40,000 a week," he said. "We are increasing that to 50,000 to 55,000 a week."

The Chief Operations Officer at the HSE said more than 35,000 Covid-19 vaccinations were administered here in the last seven days.

HSE responds to queries about admin staff

The HSE has responded to queries about claims that some administrative staff at home and some non-patient facing health staff have been vaccinated.

The executive told RTÉ News: "The HSE has no specific accounts of deviation from a reasonable approach to prioritisation but if any specific incidents of inappropriate prioritisation for vaccine are identified this will be addressed."

It said that vaccines are being given to priority groups first and as other vaccines come through the licensing process, it will offer the vaccine to the next priority groups, until it is made available to the general population.

The HSE said it is considering developing principles to guide prioritisation for the healthcare worker vaccination programmes. 

"Broadly speaking the principles will be that priority is based on the exposure risk in the context of the work done by the healthcare worker and will not be based on grade or work location," the HSE added.

Additional reporting Fergal Bowers, Fergal O'Brien, PA