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First case of another new variant in Ireland: The key points you need to know from tonight's NPHET briefing

A round-up of NPHET’s press briefing at the Department of Health this evening.

Image: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICIALS confirmed a further 35 people diagnosed with Covid-19 have died and there are 613 new cases of the disease in Ireland.

The death toll from Covid-19 in Ireland is 4,271, and the total number of confirmed cases is now at 217,478.

Here’s what was discussed at this evening’s briefing:

Another new variant

Dr Cillian De Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory confirmed one case of the B.1.525 variant of the virus has now been identified in Ireland. The UK has recently reported a number of cases of this new variant and there have been cases identified in five other European countries.

De Gascun said the variant has been associated with travel from sub-saharan Africa. He said the reason officials are “particularly concerned” about it is because it contains the E414K amino acid change which has been associated with a reduced response to neutralising antibodies. This could mean a potential impact on vaccine effectiveness.

“And it also possesses a deletion in the spike protein which has been associated with increased transmissibility. That’s an amino acid change also shared by B117, the variant first reported in the UK,” he explained. 

“It doesn’t appear to have become the dominant variant in its country of origin but as of yet we haven’t finalised definitely what that country of origin is. Nigeria has been suggested but we don’t have a lot of data out of there at this point.”

De Gascun also revealed there are a further four cases of the South African variant, bringing the total now to 15. The number of reported cases of the Brazilian variant remains at three.

Vaccine effectiveness in nursing homes

Professor Philip Nolan echoed the positive news  today from the HSE’s Dr Colm Henry on signs of vaccine efficacy. Earlier, Dr Henry said there has been a “very severe drop” in infection rates among frontline staff and that it’s “very difficult” to attributed that to the drop in community transmission alone.

Henry said that at the peak a number of weeks ago there was upwards of 1,000 hospital staff being infected in a given week but that this has dropped in the past couple of weeks to 95 and then 50. He said that a similar drop has been observed in care settings, where there were 482 cases confirmed in the week to 14 February with just 91 the following week.

This evening Professor Nolan also pointed to a “very sudden and sharp decrease” in the number of cases in longterm residential care.

He said it is a “much sharper decrease than would be explained by the decline in the level of disease in the wider community”.

For us [this is] evidence of a protective impact of the vaccine in those settings. even though the vaccination regimen is not complete, you’ll begin to see some protection as you run up to three weeks from the first dose.

He said the reduction in the number of deaths in longterm residential care is decreasing more rapidly than deaths in the community, which is further evidence in terms of the protective effect of the vaccine.

A return to normal

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Glynn said he is optimistic that the majority of people in the country who can be vaccinated will be by September.

However he said the percentage of the population required for herd immunity is still “a matter for consideration” and there are uncertainties around new variants and vaccine supplies.

“There are a number of long term scenarios that could play out in relation to this virus and as I said previously, anyone who tries to give you certainty about what situation will be in Ireland or globally next winter is making it up frankly,” he said.

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In advice to the government last week, published this afternoon, NPHET, said ‘normal’ life was still “some way off”. This evening Dr Glynn said people have good reason to be hopeful with the success of the vaccine so far, but a return to ‘normal’ will depend on a number of factors. 

If we get really high levels of uptake of vaccine, if the vaccine has a very significant and positive effect on transmission, if we manage to get vaccine into countries all across the world, if a variant doesn’t emerge which has an impact on vaccine effectiveness and become dominant, if all of those things play out, we will be in a very good position in the last quarter of this year, but there’s a lot of ifs there.

Vaccines for the people who are immuno-compromised 

Dr Glynn said NPHET has made recommendations to government about which vaccines to use for the 65-69 age group, and for those in high risk groups who are immuno-compromised.

He said the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) has made it clear that all three of the vaccines approved for use in Ireland can be used in people aged 18-69. This means those aged 65-69 will be able to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“NIAC did identify a very small group of people within that with immuno-supporession and a number of other conditions where, on the basis of their condition, it’s more likely they would have a blunted immune response,” he said.

“And since we have more information about the strength of the response that we get from mRNA vaccines NIAC recommended that those people would be given an mRNA vaccine, and the HSE is looking at the implementation of that as we speak.”

He said the advice only applies if the preference for an mRNA vaccine does not delay their vaccination by more than three weeks.

“The HSE is looking at that at the moment, if we have enough supply we can give it to that group and I think we would be optimistic that that group will get the mRNA vaccine in that timeframe.”

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