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First case of Omicron Covid variant confirmed in Ireland

James Ward, Dominic McGrath and Cate McCurry, PA

The first case of the Omicron variant of coronavirus has been confirmed in Ireland.

The Department of Health said on Wednesday that the new Covid-19 strain had been found after the sequencing of a number of suspect samples.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said public health officials “suspect” the variant will be more transmissible than Delta, and that there will be implications for how vaccines work.

He said: “We have the uncertainty with this new variant. We’re not yet certain about whether that’s going to be more transmissible, although we suspect it will be (more) than Delta.

“We suspect that there may well be, in particular, implications for how the vaccines might work.

“And we don’t yet know whether it’s an infection that will be as severe as the infection with Delta.”

He said these unknown factors required a “cautious” approach from the public.

Dr Holohan said the incidence level of Covid-19 in the community was “stabilising” but remained at “a very high level”.

Speaking on RTE News, he said he was concerned about intergenerational mixing at Christmas time, particularly for older people who had not yet received their booster vaccine.

“We do know that infection levels in the population are highest in younger children, largely because younger children are not yet vaccinated” he said.

He added: “And so for those people who are not yet boosted, the concern would be transmission taking place from younger people.

“In other words, grandchildren and people like that interacting with yet-to-be boosted grandparents.

“The further progress we can make in reducing these levels of transmission among younger children, as well as the further progress we can make rolling out the boosters, both of those things will add to the protections that we need to have in advance of the Christmas period.”

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly had warned in recent days, as concern about the new variant spread across the world, that it was likely to already be in Ireland.

The case, the department said, was associated with travel from one of the countries the Irish Government had recently imposed travel restrictions on.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin confirmed the discovery to TDs in the Dail on Wednesday.

In an earlier statement, Dr Holohan said: “The Nphet Epidemiological Surveillance Team has been meeting regularly over the course of the last week to monitor the situation relating to the Omicron variant of Sars-CoV-2 and today we are confirming that one case has been identified in Ireland.

“In the first instance, the current advice remains that all non-essential travel to or from these states should be avoided.

“If you have travelled from any of Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa or Zimbabwe to Ireland since November 1 you should isolate and present for PCR testing, regardless of symptom status.

“The key focus for all of us must be to continue to suppress the current wave of infection that is driven by the Delta variant of Covid-19.

“We know how to break the chains of transmission of this virus.

“The measures with which we are all so familiar have worked against previous variants of Covid-19, they can successfully suppress transmission of the Delta variant and we are optimistic that they will work against the Omicron variant.”

Mr Martin said: “There is one case has been confirmed and the CMO (Chief Medical Officer) has issued a statement in respect of that. So one case has been confirmed from those S-gene deletion cases.

“In that context, obviously, we will keep the economic support interventions under review.”

Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory and member of Nphet, said: “It was identified within the last week, so it is a current case if you like rather than an older case.

“I suppose just to clarify on that basis, the vast majority of samples that we would have identified from, say October and early November, would no longer be available for sequencing anyway at this point.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have any details on disease severity at this point.”

He said the new variant may have implications for vaccine effectiveness.

He added: “I suppose what we’ve seen with previous variants, Alpha and Delta, is that if a variant has a genuine transmission advantage, that over a period of time it will ultimately become dominant.

“In many respects, that’s probably an inevitability.

“I suppose the thing I would highlight is that what the virus needs is obviously a combination of a transmission advantage and enhanced socialisation to actually transmit from person to person.”

He added there is no evidence of any community transmission.

Dr de Gascun said it was “blind luck” it was discovered.

Wednesday saw a further 3,793 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland, the Department of Health said.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 578 patients in hospital with the disease, with 117 of those in intensive care units.

Dr Holohan said the discovery of the first confirmed case of the Omicron variant in Ireland “should not change how we are responding to the public health measures that are already in place”.

He added: “The best mitigation we have against transmission of this virus, regardless of the variant, are the public health measures that we are so familiar with and more importantly, that we know will work.

“For at least the next two weeks, if we can all make a concerted effort to reduce our contacts, then I am hopeful that we can make a real difference to incidence of disease in Ireland.

“There is no group who should feel the public health advice does not apply to them. It is only if we act together that we can keep ourselves, our loved ones and health and social care facilities safe.”

Dr Holohan also said there has been a “very rapid increase” in testing activity in all age groups of children under the age of 18.

There were 55 deaths linked to Covid-19 newly notified in the past week.

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