Health Minister ‘deeply concerned’ about what could be worst strain of virus yet

Health Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is “deeply concerned” about the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant in Southern Africa.

he World Health Organisation prepares to meet in response to concerns around it.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said no cases had yet been identified in Europe so far.

The variant, which has been detected in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong thus far, may be more transmissible than the Delta variant.

Health officials believe the new variant, called B.1.1.529, is the worst yet to emerge.

Its catalogue of 32 mutations have made the virus “dramatically different” to anything seen before, according to experts

The Department of Health has confirmed it is monitoring the new variant (B.1.1.529).

“No cases of this variant have been reported in Europe to date, but the Minister for Health is deeply concerned,” a spokesperson for the department said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is meeting to further assess the significance of this variant but has not yet designated this variant as a variant of concern.

“The ECDC has reported that it continues to monitor all emerging evidence in relation to this variant. The Department’s advice to the Minister will continue to be informed by relevant guidance emanating from the ECDC and the WHO.

“The Department is aware of measures taken by the Government of the United Kingdom including the suspension of flights from a number of African countries. The Department has been in contact with colleagues in Northern Ireland and we will continue to liaise with UK authorities,” the spokesperson said.

Britain announced it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from 12pm on Friday, and that returning British travellers from those destinations would have to quarantine.

“What we do know is there’s a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant,” UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told broadcasters on Thursday evening.

“And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective.”

Javid said that more data was needed but the travel restrictions were necessary as a precaution, as scientists said lab studies were needed to assess the likelihood of the mutations resulting in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, but the UK Health Security Agency said that no cases of the variant had been detected in Britain.

“Early evidence from genomic surveillance in South Africa suggests that B.1.1.529 is a serious cause for concern,” Ewan Birney, Deputy Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, said.

Speed is of the essence when it comes to measures being taken against new variants of Covid-19, an immunovirology professor has said as news of a new variant worrying scientists emerged on Thursday.

Prof Liam Fanning of UCC said the “last thing this country needs with the current situation of high prevalence and hospitals under threat is to have a new variant that is going to outcompete Delta”.

Asked if speed is of the essence when it came to dealing with this variant, Prof Fanning said: “It absolutely is”.

“We almost cleared this country of the virus in summer 2020 and then a lot of it was seeded in the September and October period due to inward travel. The last thing this country needs with the current situation of high prevalence and hospitals under threat is to have a new variant that is going to outcompete Delta,” the UCC professor said on RTÉ’s Primetime.

Prof Cliona O’Farrelly agreed the new variant was a cause for concern and added it was unsurprising a variant of this nature has emerged.

“It’s not surprising, unfortunately, with the amount this virus is able to replicate and the amount of it on the globe, it was almost inevitable that new variants would arise and amongst those new variants would be one that might pose a threat like this one.

“It really emphasises the need to have a global approach to this problem and we really need to get vaccine technologies into all countries in the world and particularly countries in Africa that have difficulty in getting access to vaccines. I don’t think Covax is enough, I think we need to be putting pressure on our Government to make sure the technologies are available to other countries,” Prof O’Farrelly said on the same programme.

Prof Fanning said that in order for the new variant to become a dominant variant in Ireland, should it arrive here, it has a “very high threshold to overtake Delta”.

“We know the vaccines cover us against Delta but this new virus, the threshold for it to evade the immunity the vaccines give us is exceptionally high.

“While it may evade some aspects of our immune system, we have multiple arms of our immune system that target the virus at different sites, so it would be quite unlikely that the virus would modify…there are 20 sites of this particular virus that are not covered by antibodies but by the T cell so it would be quite unlikely that we would be exposed to it as if it was a brand new virus,” Prof Fanning said.

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland

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