On the 10th March 1972 a young school teacher from the Yugoslav town of Dakovica in Kosovo died. His death was initially attributed to an adverse reaction to penicillin. Within days, dozens of his close contacts began to fall ill and present to hospitals with clear signs of smallpox, a disease thought eradicated in Europe.

What followed was the most extraordinary mass vaccination in history. Between the end of  March and mid May, an incredible 18 millions citizens had been vaccinated and the disease contained.

But the measures to do so were also extraordinary. A state of emergency was declared, martial law was applied, borders were sealed, plans for response to a biological warfare attack were dusted off, censorship tightened, the army and the impressive Yugoslav civil defence were mobilised, public meetings and sports events were banned. 

Over 3,000 people were assigned to work exclusively on contact tracing in Belgrade alone (pop 900,000 in 1972), hotels and campsites were requisitioned for quarantine and travel restrictions were implemented.

The Yugoslav socialist government reached out for international help, welcoming teams from WHO and the American CDC to assist  Millions of free doses of the vaccine were received from nearby countries. 

So the question is: how long will it take Ireland to vaccinate its population against COVID?

We feel that the commentary that everyone will be vaccinated by mid 2021 is extremely optimistic. This is not Yugoslavia in 1972:

  • We do not have detailed, constantly updated and critiqued plans to roll out a rapid vaccination.
  • We cannot make vaccination a legal requirement without serious court challenges.
  • We do not have spare capacity in our emergency response or an ability to pivot a large standing army to something they are unsuited for.
  • We cannot censor the press or even control the information flow, as could be done pre-internet.
  • We will be competing with countries around the world for doses.
  • We will most likely receive our doses in four batches through EU procurement, in sequence with other EU countries.  So a delay in any one phase in any country may mean a delay in all.
  • We will need to have ongoing medical monitoring and observation of the vaccines due to their rapid approval.
  • We will have to manage the right of people not to be vaccinated; those people may harden in their opposition and their numbers may grow.
  • We will still have to run our health systems, primary care and pharmacies for the host of other services they provide in parallel with the vaccine administration.

At the moment Ireland seems to able to, without much fuss, administer approx 660,000 flu vaccines per year (over a 10-12 week period).  This is led by GPs, pharmacies, occupational health nurses in workplaces and with HSE teams that administer to their own staff, nursing homes, hospital and other residential or day care settings. For COVID, the number of vaccines will be approx double the population, as each of the likely approved vaccines requires 2 shots.

So the vaccine programme will be some 15 times larger than the current flu vaccine schedule. At a point, certain resources required for scaling up simultaneously will not be available, whether that’s the skilled people, vaccines, vehicles, fridges, vials etc. 

In addition people will continue to die, seemingly healthy and suddenly, in Ireland, and there will be occasions during the roll-out of the vaccine when people will die suddenly on the day or within a few  days of receiving a vaccine dose. 

Some of these deaths may be amplified and become viral on social media as being caused by a vaccine. This will deter the ‘wait and see’ people, those mostly young and healthy and so delay both the vaccine programme and consequently reaching that 80% target to achieve herd immunity and the return to normality.

That’s why ScanSmart’s best guess at this point is that the final population groups to receive the vaccine will run into 2022.