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Leah Farrell/
chief medical officer

'Dark cloud on the horizon': Holohan flags concerns over Indian variant

Both case numbers and hospitalisations have remained steady as vaccination continues to roll out.

LAST UPDATE | 21 May 2021

CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Dr Tony Holohan has flagged concerns about the so-called Indian variant, calling it a “dark cloud on the horizon”.

At this afternoon’s weekly NPHET press briefing, Holohan has said that while “the skies are blue” with case numbers and hospitalisations remaining steady alongside the vaccine rollout, public health doctors will continue to monitor the situation with the Indian variant.

“The skies, for the most part, are blue but there is a black cloud on the horizon which is the Indian variant, we are concerned genuinely about the reports we’re seeing and the credibility we attached to them around the increased transmissibility associated with that particular variant.”

There are now a total of 72 cases of the Indian variant, confirmed by Dr Cillian de Gascun this evening. This variant is also known as B.1.617.2.

Currently, the main concerns around the Indian variant are increased transmissibility over the B117 or UK variant, alongside concerns that it may reduce the effectiveness of vaccination on reducing transmission of Covid-19. 

The particular concern around reduced effectiveness of transmissibility is after the first dose of a vaccine.

According to Holohan, this comes from data from Public Health England that is expected to be published today. 

“We need to see and study that data a little bit more before we’re able to fully understand its implications but this is only underscoring our concern about this particular variant,” said Holohan, saying it was the most concerning variant since the emergence of the UK variant.

However, there are no concerns currently that the Indian variant will cause more severe symptoms of Covid-19, with no evidence suggesting that it will.

Holohan also said that the public health measures in place will give public health officials the capability to identify, track and implement control measures around these cases when they are identified.

On where the cases are coming from, de Gascun has said that while he did not have specific data on the location, some have come from the UK while others from the Indian subcontinent.

When asked about the transmissibility of the Indian variant, Holohan said that data from the UK has indicated that it could have a transmission advantage of over 50%, but that the exact figure is uncertain.

“We think the certainly good enough reason to believe that there is a transmission advantage that could be as big as that but we can’t conclude that it’s definitely going to land at plus 50%,” said Holohan.

Holohan said that it was safe for NPHET to assume that it was at approximately 50%, and that it would remind us to “redouble our efforts” to minimize the importation of the variant through non-essential international travel.

Speaking to the media this afternoon, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said they have been tracking the Indian variant “very closely”. 

“We’re going to closely monitor this and watch how it’s developing within the UK in particular,” Martin said. 

He later said: “I’ve always said in terms of variants they represent a continuing challenge to our battle against Covid-19. 

“The evidence generally seems to be so far that the vaccines are giving protection and immunity against more illness. In terms of the Indian variant, we’ve got to again monitor that and see what’s happening over in the UK.”

ESRI Research

During the briefing, Professor Pete Lunn of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit detailed new research showing that there has been an uptick in the number of vaccinated people socialising, while non-vaccinated people remain more cautious.

“The data also reveal that these increases are much stronger among people who have been vaccinated. Most people who are not yet vaccinated are continuing to be cautious. Our data are consistent with the majority of people waiting until they are vaccinated before increasing their activity again,” said Lunn.

“What you’re essentially seeing here is a kind of wave of social activity going from the oldest to the youngest down to the population as people get vaccinated.”

Lunn says there has also been a slight bump up of social activity for people in their 30s, which he suspects is due to people visiting vaccinated parents.

Younger people have not broadly increased their social activity according to Lunn.

“This data is certainly consistent with the people who are not vaccinated in younger cohorts essentially not really increasing their social activity, remaining cautious and waiting to be vaccinated.”

With reporting by Hayley Halpin

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