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 Medical virologist Dr Cillian De Gascun.
Medical virologist Dr Cillian De Gascun.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

De Gascun: 'No hard evidence' yet that new variant seen in UK is more infectious

Cillian De Gascun said however that it is ‘prudent’ to act on the principle that it might be.
Dec 21st 2020, 7:47 PM 28,653 53

IRISH PUBLIC HEALTH officials have said there is not yet any “hard evidence” that the new Covid-19 strain circulating in the UK is more infectious than other strains.

Speaking this evening, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr. Cillian De Gascun said however that it is “prudent” to act on the basis that this might be the case until more research is carried out.

De Gascun also said that the variant has not yet been identified in this country but that he cannot ruled out that it is here.

He said that the variant has been seen in the UK as far back as 20 September so it is “difficult to exclude” the possibility that it may be in this country due to the travel between the two nations.

This evening’s briefing at the Department of Health saw health officials delivering a stark message, with chair of NPHET’s modelling group Professor Philip Nolan saying that the country is “clearly now in a third wave of this pandemic”.

The briefing heard that the five-day rolling average of daily Covid-19 cases has almost doubled from 339 last Thursday to 616 today.

Nolan also said that the positivity rate for the coronavirus was “increasing rapidly”, but he cautioned that this spike need not be due to a new strain of the virus.

He said the R-number was now potentially as high as 1.5 to 1.6 but that he would provide a more confident estimation of this later in the week.

“We don’t need to hypothesise the existence of a new variant to explain the very high growth rates that we’re seeing now,” Nolan said.

In other words, we were getting reproduction numbers of 1.4 to 1.6 at kind of our most social a period in late August and into September. So when you think about the amount of congregation that we now have evidence for in indoor high risk settings, it’s not to say the new variant is here or isn’t here, there’s no evidence that it is, there’s no need to read these rapidly high case counts as evidence that it must be here.

“It’s clear from the level of social contact that we’re seeing that this could account for those very high growth rates,” he said.

Earlier today, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said the new variant observed in the UK has been reported in at least three countries.

Concern over the strain has led to a slew of European countries, including Ireland, suspending flights from the UK.

UK health officials have said that initial modelling and research has suggested that the new variant may be 70% more infectious that other strains.

De Gascun said the strain is “a cause for concern” but that the evidence is not there yet to say for sure that it is more infectious.

“I don’t think we have seen the evidence for that interpretation at this point in time,” he said.

Certainly there are significant case numbers in various regions of the UK and it has become the dominant strain over the last four or five weeks, certainly it’s a cause for concern. There are some genetic markers that might explain why it would be more infective, and perhaps might be more efficient at transmitting, but we haven’t seen the hard evidence for that.

Despite this, De Gascun said that due to the infection rates in the southeast of the UK its “quite important and prudent” to operate on a precautionary basis.

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He added that Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has shown to be a virus that mutates frequently and that therefore “there’s enough there to make us concerned”.

“If we look at virus genome as a whole, it has more mutations at this point in the course of the pandemic than we expect,” he said, adding that this new variant has mutated even more frequently than other strains of the virus.

We know the rate at which SARS-CoV-2 evolves, and all viruses evolve over time and there’s nothing surprising about that. Generally speaking SARS-CoV-2 tends to acquire between one and two mutations per month and this new novel variant has 29 mutations.

“We want to learn more about how this virus is transmitted, if it is more transmissible why is it more transmissible, is it related to viral load, is it related to how efficiently it can infect cells?”

De Gascun said it will be “a number of weeks” before the evidence will be there to determine if this new variant is indeed more infectious.

“We know that our colleagues in the UK are doing those studies in the laboratory at the moment, that’s quite technical, it requires growing up cell lines, it also requires perhaps maybe some animal studies. So realistically I think it’ll be a number of weeks before we have the definitive laboratory evidence.

“But as I said personally I think based on the rate of spread that they have seen in the UK, and obviously they are concerned by what they’ve seen, I think it’s prudent for European governments and our own to to operate on the precautionary principle until we have more information.”

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Rónán Duffy

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