Nphet member Dr Cillian de Gascun has said there is no reason to believe vaccines will not be effective against the new Covid-19 variant Omicron.
Countries around the world are introducing travel bans and restrictions on southern African countries to contain the new variant which the early evidence suggests has an increased re-infection risk, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) who have designated the “Omicron” variant as being of concern.
The Republic last night followed the EU in agreeing to implement an “emergency brake” on arrivals from seven southern African countries, as Belgium confirmed the bloc’s first case of the Omicron variant.
Speaking on Saturday morning Dr de Gascun stressed there is no evidence “at this stage” to suggest vaccines were not effective against Omicron nor that anti-viral medicines will not work against it.
However, he said there was a reason to concerned about this variant as it “might have an impact on an antibody response and it contains other mutations that have not been seen before.”
“Because it is so far removed from the original virus there could be more infections and have an impact on those who have been vaccinated.”
He said the number of people being infected by Omicron have risen sharply in recent days in South Africa, but from a low base.
He said it had “taken off” in a country with a very low level of Covid infections compared to Ireland, where the Delta variant remains dominant, he added.
Dr de Gascun, the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory in UCD, added that it would be beneficial for the world to help South Africa to control the spread of the virus in their own country.
“It’s been all Delta for the last six months across the world. Nothing has come to displace Delta at this stage because it is the most transmissible and that would be normal for viruses,” he told RTÉ Radio 1’s Brendan O’Connor Show.
“There is no indication that it is widespread in Europe. There are small numbers at present. We are not seeing any evidence for it at this point.”
Dr de Gascun said the emergence of Omicron underlined the importance of rolling out the vaccine programmes globally.
The new variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24th. Since then cases have been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. Germany and the Czech Republic reported suspected cases on Saturday.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan told Newstalk the Department of Foreign Affairs was trying to repatriate Irish citizens from South Africa.
“We are looking at it, an Irish citizen has to be able to come home, there is very limited flights from any airline…we’ve experience in the past, we’ve done it during this Covid pandemic where we arrange flights to try bring people home…and that’s one of the things we’re looking at”.
There is no indication as yet as to when the Munster rugby team will return. The team are in South Africa to play two United Rugby Championship (URC) against the Bulls and the Lions over the coming two weekends. Both games have been cancelled.
Despite the confirmed case in Belgium Dr de Gascun said he did not anticipate travel restrictions over the Christmas period in Europe.
“We can continue to allow travel by having a pre-travel PCR or a post-arrival PCR. We need to get a better picture of where the virus is at present.”
In the Republic 4,791 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed on Saturday morning. At 8am, 536 Covid-19 patients were in hospital with the virus of whom 118 were in ICU.
Hospitalisations are down by 149 on the peak of the fourth wave which occurred on November 22nd when there was 685 people in hospital. The number of patient in ICU peaked on Wednesday at 132.
Dr de Gascun said there were signs the current spike in cases was slowing and that people were reducing their social contacts.
He said there was still time to get to a lower level of Covid-19, admittedly from a very high plateau.
“We need to think of this as a three month plan, a winter plan, to get it under control,” he said.
“We had increased socialisation around Christmas, but we had a massive spike after Christmas. We can’t do that again.”
HSE chief executive Paul Reid tweeted that “there’s no doubt that the public have responded once again to aim to de-risk the situation in relation to #COVID19. Yes, it’s a longer road. But I know that for all of those who are working in healthcare, and are simply exhausted, this is hugely appreciated. Thank you.”
World Health Organisation executive director Dr Mike Ryan cautioned against a public overreaction to the Omicron variant.
“There is this idea that we are just waiting for the next variant. I don’t want people to spend their lives worrying about that every day,” he said.
“Scientists need to worry about that, and we need to characterise those risks, and you need to trust that we will tell you if there is a significant change in risk.”
Dr Ryan said it was important for people to remain “open and focused.”
“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel,” he said.
Dr Ryan went on to commend the health officials in South Africa who flagged the new variant as one of potential concern.