The first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are due to arrive on February 8th and will be offered to essential workers outside the health sector, Italy's vaccine task force decided in a meeting on Wednesday evening to revise the immunization schedule.
Meanwhile new doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which have been administered to some 2 million people in Italy to date, will be allocated to over-55s and people with pre-existing health problems.
That significantly accelerates Italy's vaccination timetable: previously, no one under 80 was supposed to get the shot until all over-80s – some 4.4 million people – had been vaccinated, along with the roughly 2 million health workers and nursing home staff and residents who were first in line.
Under the revised vaccination plan, Italy's new targets are to administer some 2 million doses in February – the same number delivered in the first five weeks of the programme so far – rising to 4 million in March and 8 million in April.
The first phase of the campaign has concentrated primarily on healthcare professionals, with regional health services scheduled to begin immunizing over-80s from the second week of February onwards.
Under the new plan Italy will start vaccinating over-80s, over-55s and key workers all at the same time, meaning that some 24 million people in Italy will become eligible to join the queue for a jab – though when they actually get one will depend on supplies.
Condivise le nuove fasi di somministrazione e le fasce di priorità: al via gli over80 e in parallelo anche altre categorie in base alla tipologia del vaccino da usare. Quindi da febbraio si procederà alla conclusione Fase 1 e si darà da subito il via alla Fase 3 #Covid_19 pic.twitter.com/0pJb0hLiSN
— Giovanni Rodriquez (@GiovaQuez) February 3, 2021
The change is due to regulatory caution over whether the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe and effective for older adults. While the vaccine has been approved by EU and Italian regulators for use on all adults, clinical trials to date have mainly involved participants under 55, leading Italian medicines agency AIFA to recommend that it be reserved for 18 to 55-year-olds pending further studies.
When the first million doses arrive this month, they will therefore be offered to teachers, lecturers and other staff in schools and universities, as well as members of the armed forces, police, firefighters, prison staff and prisoners, other key workers and people living in religious or other shared communities who are under 55.
Those over 55 or with health conditions including arterial hypertension, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, severe obesity and others will receive either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shot, around 2.5 million doses of which are due to arrive throughout February.
Pharmaceutical groups insist that they will get deliveries back on track after production delays in January, which the Italian health ministry said had pushed back its vaccination campaign by six to eight weeks. The programme stalled as health authorities focused on delivering booster shots to people who had already received their first dose.
While the government is keen to pick up the pace, the timeline varies by region, with Italy's different regional health services setting their own calendars depending on their population, resources and vaccination sites.
Among the first parts of the country due to start vaccinating over-80s in the coming days are Lazio, Valle D'Aosta and the autonomous province of Trentino, while Liguria, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Piedmont and Lombardy have said they will begin from mid to late February or March.