Giving people first and second Covid vaccinations with an eight-week gap inbetween is the best way to offer maximum protection, Scotland’s national clinical director has said, after Scottish Labour proposed halving the gap.
Jason Leitch said that clinical advice is “very, very clear” that giving people their doses at a shorter interval will not offer people enough protection.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has called for the gap between first and second vaccinations to be halved to four weeks to deal with the “out of control” spread of coronavirus.
Mr Sarwar pointed to guidance from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) which suggests that vaccines can be effective when the two doses are administered just four weeks apart.
He said: “By cutting the waiting time between first and second doses, we can get people protected faster and ensure our response to the pandemic is keeping pace with the crisis.”
He also said the speed of the vaccination rollout must now be increased amid record levels of new Covid-19 cases.
Mr Leitch said that because you can only vaccinate with a second dose at eight weeks, the numbers being vaccinated at the moment depends on how many people were given their first doses eight weeks ago, but that this will start to increase.
He told BBC Good Morning Scotland: “If you look back into the weeks we’re just approaching, eight weeks ago the numbers go up, more first doses were given eight weeks ago, so the second dose numbers will now start to increase again.
“We can’t for public health reasons move that further forward than eight weeks because you get maximum protection, the compromise is we’ve moved from 12 to eight from the joint committee helping us with making that decision.”
Asked whether giving people their second dose four weeks after their first would not work, he replied: “The clinical advice is very, very clear, the clincal advice is do it at eight weeks, and don’t make it shorter because you won’t protect people enough.”
Mr Leitch also said that while the MHRA said it was safe to give the vaccinations at three-week intervals, it is the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) who decide what gap offers the best protection.
He said: “They also tell us which gap to use depending on your pandemic, and they moved that from 12 to eight so that we could get second doses in for the Delta variant because the Delta variant changed the equation and now they’re saying make sure you get first and seconds in just according to this guidance so firsts in as quick as you can across your whole population and seconds in at eight weeks minimum.”
Mr Leitch also said authorities are “very hopeful that we are beginning to see stabilisation” and that they are “cautious” but “relatively optimistic” that intensive care cases and mortality are not rising at previous rates because vaccination is protecting people.
A spokesman for the Health Secretary, Humza Yousaf, argued that an eight-week gap was “optimal” according to advice from the JCVI and that “reducing that below eight weeks would compromise the effectiveness of the vaccine and how long that effect lasts”.
He added: “We are progressing the final stages of our successful vaccine rollout as quickly as we can.
“This is limited by supply, we can only give Pfizer to younger age groups, in addition, constraints on supply affect the pool of those who had their first dose eight weeks previously.”
Last week saw the most coronavirus cases than at any point during the pandemic, with a peak of 4,484 new infections recorded.
According to the latest ONS infection survey figures, Scotland is also believed to have the highest Covid rate in the UK, with estimated levels in the Scottish population 73% higher than in England, triple those in Wales and more than four times higher than those in Northern Ireland.
With the surging case numbers, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged that the Test and Protect contact tracing system is “under pressure” but insisted it is “coping well”.