The European Centre for Disease Control and the European Medicines Agency's Covid-19 task force has concluded that it is too early to consider using a fourth dose of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines in the general population.

However, both agencies have agreed that a fourth dose (or second booster) can be given to adults 80 years of age and above, after reviewing data on the higher risk of severe Covid-19 in this age group and the protection provided by a fourth dose.

They also also noted that there is currently no clear evidence in the EU that vaccine protection against severe disease is waning substantially in adults with normal immune systems aged 60 to 79 years, and therefore no clear evidence to support the immediate use of a fourth dose.

The agencies said that evidence on the effects of a fourth dose comes largely from Israel, where data indicate that a second booster given at least four months after first booster restores antibody levels without raising any new safety concerns.

Data also suggests that a second booster provides additional protection against severe disease, although the duration of the benefits is not yet known and the evidence is still limited.

Fourth Covid vaccine dose recommended for over 65s

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) has recommended a fourth Covid vaccine dose for everyone aged 65 and older.

It also recommended a second booster for those aged 12 and older who are immunocompromised and children aged five to 11 who are immunocompromised should complete an extended primary course, which is a total of three vaccine doses.

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Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he accepted the advice of NIAC, and that planning has already begun within the HSE for the roll out of this vaccine dose.

He said NIAC has advised that there should be a six-month period between this new dose and the previous one, but that a four-month time gap may be appropriate in some cases.

The minister said: "NIAC has advised ideally that there would be a six-month gap between this new booster and the last one, but it could be four months where that is appropriate.

"So we'll be looking to put that in place now, very quickly with HSE."

In a later statement, Mr Donnelly also confirmed that he had asked health officials to consider who else might need another booster dose.

"Covid-19 vaccines have achieved extraordinary success in preventing severe disease, hospitalisation and death. These vaccines continue to have a very good safety profile with hundreds of millions of doses administrated globally," he said.

"Those who are unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated continue to be disproportionately affected and account for approximately a third of hospitalisations for Covid-19.

"As such, I urge anyone for whom an additional dose of vaccine has been recommended, or anyone yet to receive their primary course or booster vaccine do so as soon as possible.

"I have asked the NIAC to continue to actively examine the evidence regarding the likely benefit of a second booster to other groups, vaccine choice and interval, in order to make further recommendations in this regard."

NIAC has said that only around 20.5% of children aged 5-11 years have completd their primary Covid-19 vaccination course.

It said that this may be in part because of the high rates of infection in this age group.

It has urged that these children should complete their primary vaccination course.

The Covid-19 vaccination uptake of other eligible population groups is: 18 years plus, over 95% fully vaccinated; 12-17 years, 77% are fully vaccinated.

NIAC has said that efforts to increase primary and first booster vaccination uptake should remain a public health priority.

It has submitted a medium-term strategy to the Government to deal with Covid-19.

It says the "best case" scenario is significantly less severe future variants and protection against severe disease is maintained, without the need for periodic boosting or significant alterations to current vaccines.

The worst case scenario is the emergence of a more virulent and highly transmissible variant, with less effective vaccines and or rapid waning immunity against severe disease.

NIAC said "it would be prudent to have contingency plans in place to facilitate rapid roll out of booster vaccination for the general population".

Meanwhile, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan has agreed to brief members of the Oireachtas Health Committee tomorrow on the current policy around Covid-19.

The meeting will be at 10am.

Sinn Féin's health spokesperson, David Cullinane TD, said that this was important to get an understanding of the public health recommendations and advice given to Government.

Mater services under 'extreme pressure'

Elsewhere, the Mater Hospital in Dublin has appealed to the public to avoid its emergency department because of pressure on services caused by Covid -19.

It said: "Hospital services are under extreme pressure due to a combination of large numbers of people contracting Covid, high numbers of presentations at the ED and high levels of staff absences due to Covid-19.

"Patients who are presenting at our ED with non-urgent conditions are unfortunately experiencing lengthy waiting times to be seen.

"Where possible, the Mater advises patients with non-emergency conditions to seek assistance from other parts of the health service such as minor injury units or their GP."

It said that any patient needing emergency care would still be seen at the hospital.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health has been notified of 4,076 PCR-confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 4,278 people have registered a positive antigen test through the HSE portal.

In a statement, it said that there are currently 1,333 patients with the virus being treated in hospital, 58 of whom are in intensive care.