Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Covid-19 Task Force: Statements


6:10 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Tá mé buíoch den Dáil gur glacadh leis an díospóireacht seo anocht. Tá sé an-tábhachtach ní hamháin go bhfuil díospóireacht againn ach freisin go bhfuil guth aontaithe sa Dáil anocht ag tacú leis an vacsaín, leis na heolaithe, le muintir na tíre seo agus leis na daoine ar fud an domhain a ghlac páirt sna trialacha cliniciúla.

I would like to speak about the EU's co-ordination efforts to secure a vaccine for Covid-19. A safe and effective vaccine is our best chance to beat the coronavirus and return to our normal lives. As I have said repeatedly, I join the vast majority of colleagues in this House in saying that when a vaccine is available to me, I will take it, and I look forward to that day very much. The European Commission has provided an unprecedented response to the pandemic. The European Commission and member states have agreed to joint action at European Union level. The Commission has planned a centralised EU approach to securing supplies and providing support for the development of a vaccine. Significant funding for this has come from Europe's emergency support instrument.

The Commission has worked tirelessly to secure doses of vaccines that can be shared with all on a fair basis. It has worked closely with pharmaceutical companies and the European Medicines Agency to ensure not just that an effective vaccine is available as soon as possible, but that a safe vaccine is available as soon as possible. As with any vaccine, the vaccine candidates have gone through and are going through rigorous scientific assessment before being made available to the public. I thank every one of the participants in the clinical trials. I am sure there are some in Ireland. Tens of thousands of people across the world have taken on these risks that some people have said they are not willing to take, so that this can be proven to work and to be safe for the rest of us, and very successfully in this case.

The European Commission has entered into advance purchase agreements with individual vaccine producers on behalf of us all. In return for the right to buy a specified number of vaccine doses in a given timeframe, at a given price, the European Commission is financing part of the up-front costs faced by vaccine producers from the emergency support instrument. The funding is considered as a down payment on vaccines that will be purchased by member states, such as Ireland. The approach decreased risk for companies and speeds up and increases manufacturing capacity. It is our European Commission, and on behalf of us all it has secured agreements with six vaccine developers, most of which are now household names, including AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, Pfizer, CureVac and Moderna. More may come. The recent positive announcements of effective vaccines for Covid-19 and the conclusion of these arrangements is warmly welcomed by everybody in this House.

All member states of the European Union have access to vaccines at the same time and distribution will be done on a per capitabasis to ensure fair access. Yesterday, the Commission's President, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the EU's 27 member countries aimed to start vaccinations at approximately the same time in a sign of unity. She had discussions with the Taoiseach about this the day before. In her statement to the European Parliament, the President of the Commission said that to get to the end of the pandemic, we need approximately 70% of the population to be vaccinated. This is a substantial task. Our medics and scientists have started the ball rolling, but it is up to all of us to work together, both as individuals and member states, to make sure that this happens.

The European Medicines Agency, which regulates the release of medicines in the EU, is bringing forward to next Monday a special meeting originally planned for a week later to discuss provisional approval for the Pfizer vaccine. It is true that European member states have the option to go before the EMA under emergency rules, but the Commission wants a co-ordinated roll-out across the European Union to ensure nobody is left behind. It is an important principle that everybody has safe access to this.

The European Council and the General Affairs Council, where I sit, have continually underlined the importance of preparation for the timely deployment and distribution of vaccines, including the development of vaccine strategies, which is the focus of the debate tonight, to ensure vaccines are available to people in the European Union in good time and in a co-ordinated manner. This is exactly what the Government has done with our own Covid-19 taskforce. I pay tribute to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to the Taoiseach for his leadership, and to my good friend, Professor Brian MacCraith, for his public service. I think it is fair to say that he has transformed Dublin City University. It is a world-leading young university. His skills are exactly the skills that we need, with a friendly, non-confrontational approach that is grounded in scientific assessment and reality, and in the scientific method. I think we can be certain of getting that from Professor MacCraith.

It is important that we give as much clear information as possible on vaccines to counter disinformation. I sincerely hope that we do not hear disinformation in the Dáil, or insulting talk about risks. There are always risks but a greater risk has been taken on by many ordinary men and women in clinical trials. They have paved the way for the rest of us.

The Commission will put in place a common reporting framework and a platform to monitor the effectiveness of national strategies and to share best practices. The conclusions of the first review of national vaccine plans will be presented in the second half of this month. The Taoiseach would say, and I would say at the General Affairs Council and know the Minister for Health would agree, that the sharing of best practice from across the European Union and of experience is important, and plays a key role in what we are doing. It is a key benefit of our European Union membership.

The arrival of vaccines does not mean that the pandemic is over. The epidemiological situation in Europe is worrying. It is worrying in this country too. Considerable efforts are being made across the European Union. When I was in Brussels last week, there was not a soul on the streets after 10 p.m. There is a curfew. Restaurants and bars are shut. Similar measures have been introduced in Germany, the Netherlands and many other countries. There is a dire situation in Europe that can only be relieved by the production of a vaccine.

The co-ordination of efforts at EU level has been successful so far. Member states want to strengthen this as much as we can. Everybody wants to lift restrictions, to return to normal travel and to get tourism back, as the health situation allows.

Vaccination should be treated as a global public good. It is no good if we all get vaccinated if some poor country in Africa, or indeed another part of Europe, is not able to avail of the vaccine. If we are not all vaccinated or do not all have the opportunity, it loses its effectiveness. The COVAX facility is a good strategy but we need to keep working on that to make sure we live up to its ideals.

Disinformation on the coronavirus is thriving. It is important to get updated information from authoritative sources only, such as hse.ieand who.int. I encourage everyone to follow the public health advice. It is based on scientific rigour, significant experience and the successful science behind vaccines over the last century. Where has polio gone? Smallpox has also all but disappeared. Diseases that were debilitating and killers have been eliminated or much reduced because of vaccines. I was proud to stand up for the HPV vaccine throughout its history and while I certainly met concerned constituents, a quick conversation with Professor John Crown about the dangers of cervical cancer certainly corrected any misapprehensions that one may have had.

We can look forward to a future without cervical cancer and similar diseases because of the roll-out of the HPV vaccine, which at the time was sought and campaigned for by tens of thousands of Irish people. I am proud supporter, not just of vaccines, but of scientific method and scientific reality. Not all of the candidate vaccines will be approved by the European Medicines Agency but many of them will. We can rely on testing and scientific method challenging all of the assumptions and making sure the vaccines that are on the market are safe and effective and that they put an end to the pandemic.

I have great respect the Rural Independent Group Deputies but I was surprised to learn that the motion they tabled yesterday referenced the reopening of pubs, which is undoubtedly a significant issue, but there was no mention of vaccines. We are not going to get out of this pandemic or sort out all of the issues it has brought upon us unless we can get vaccine roll-out.

I express my solidarity and support for families that have been grievously affected Covid-19. Thousands of people in this country have died, in many cases leaving families behind and there are other people who are very sick still with ongoing issues. I know of one person who had an amputation as a result of coronavirus. It is a serious illness. We must stick together and do our best for the next few weeks and months until the vaccine becomes available in order that we can eliminate the virus.

The solidarity that we have shown together in the European Union, working together, buying medicines together and getting that medicine for a good price, sharing scientific and practical expertise, is a wonderful thing to behold. It is of immense benefit to Irish and European citizens.


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