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Omicron Covid variant detected in Ireland from travel but 'no evidence yet' of community transmission

The World Health Organization designated the latest strain of Covid-19 as a variant of concern.

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Updated Dec 1st 2021, 3:43 PM

THE FIRST CASE of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 has been detected in Ireland.

The news was confirmed by NPHET today in a technical briefing. Whole genome sequencing was carried out on eight samples, and one was identified as Omicron. 

The case relates to recent travel to one of the seven designated southern African nations, with NPHET saying there is currently no evidence of community transmission in Ireland

The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially designated the latest strain of Covid-19 as a variant of concern.

The first known confirmed Omicron infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November. In recent weeks, infections in South Africa have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection.

Speaking this afternoon, Dr Cillian De Gascun of the National Virus Reference Laboratory said teams had been looking at samples in the lab which contained an s-gene failure, or ‘dropout’.

These s-gene dropouts can be indicative of Omicron and fourteen samples were identified, with eight successfully sequenced. 

In those eight cases, Omicron was detected in one case, something De Gascun said was “positive in some respects” because the had believed there may be more. 

De Gascun added that there was “an element of blind luck” in the case being sequenced because it was part of the 10% of samples that are sent to the lab in Backweston on a weekly basis. 

De Gascun added that, to protect the identity of the individual, NPHET didn’t want to provide additional details about the case but that there are “no additional cases” associated with the person at this point. 

My understanding is that the individual would have returned before the guidance changed in relation to the testing of incoming travellers. In fact, they may have other returned before the announcement about Omicron, so it was detected in the context of my understanding of a symptomatic presentation and enhanced surveillance is ongoing and I’m not aware of any additional cases associated with that individual at this point. 

 

Asked the likelihood about Omicron becoming the dominant variant in Ireland, De Gascun said that it would require “a genuine transmission advantage” and socialisation among society for this to happen. 

“I suppose what we’ve seen with with previous variants, Alpha and Delta is that if they have a variant has a genuine transmission advantage, then 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 it’s a combination of a transmission advantage and enhanced socialisation to actually transmit from person to person. If we look at Omicron at the moment, we still don’t really have definitive evidence of its transmission advantage, but the data from South Africa is certainly suggestive.

Dr De Gascun stressed however that the variant must first be spreading in the community and that there is no evidence of this as yet:

“At the moment te don’t see any level of evidence at least of community transmission of this variant in Ireland and I think that’s a key measure or the importance of travel measures.”

Omicron

This Omicron variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning, according to the WHO.

The health body said that evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other variants of concern.

But it added that said it could take several weeks to complete studies of Omicron to see if there are any changes in transmissibility, severity or implications for Covid vaccines, tests and treatments.

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The WHO also said: “Countries should continue to implement the effective public health measures to reduce COVID-19 circulation overall, using a risk analysis and science-based approach. They should increase some public health and medical capacities to manage an increase in cases.” 

People travelling to Ireland from seven southern African nations now have to get a pre-flight PCR test to fly into Ireland, and take part in 10-day mandatory quarantine ‘at home’, which will end if they receive two negative PCR tests.

These rules apply regardless of vaccination status.

Yesterday, 5,471 new Covid-19 cases were confirmed in Ireland.

- Additional reporting Rónán Duffy and Aoife Barry

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