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Analysis suggests UK coronavirus variant 'not responsible for recent surge' in Ireland

It was identified in fewer than 10% of swabs in a small batch anaylsed.

File photo of a Covid test.
File photo of a Covid test.
Image: Shutterstock

Updated Jan 2nd 2021, 2:45 PM

ANALYSIS OF A small number of coronavirus samples indicates that a new strain of the virus feared to be more transmissible may not be responsible for Ireland’s third wave of infections.

The finding is at odds with the government’s assertion that the variant is responsible for a recent and significant surge in confirmed cases of Covid-19, which has gathered pace since restrictions were lifted at the start of December.

There is growing evidence that the new variant is more transmissible, although existing vaccines against Covid-19 and those in development will likely still provide protection against it.

It has become the dominant strain in parts of the United Kingdom, where it was first identified in England’s south-east.

Virologist and director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Cillian De Gascun tweeted last night that recent swab samples of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus responsible for Covid-19 – from between 23 December and 29 December were genome sequenced for the new mutation.

A further nine cases were identified from the randomised batch, bringing the number identified so far to 16 out of 169 SARS-CoV-2 samples analysed from December.

De Gascun highlighted that the number of samples analysed is small, but the fact that the mutation was identified in less than 10% of samples indicates that it is ‘not responsible for the recent significant & concerning increase in case numbers’.

Speaking this afternoon to RTÉ’s Saturday with Katie Hannon, Professor Philip Nolan said that while there is only limited data, “the important thing is it’s a threat”:

We know it’s here in Ireland, we know we’ve had multiple introductions, so our focus now needs to be preventing it spreading further and preventing new introductions from abroad.
With this new variant, the important thing is that the measures are the same: Limiting our contacts, social distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene.

COVID 19 688 (1) De Gascun speaking at a NPHET briefing in May. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

New confirmed cases of Covid-19 have soared to record highs, with many thousands more cases expected to be announced over the coming days as a backlog caused by an ageing computer system is cleared.

Case numbers notified to NPHET yesterday numbered 1,754. However, there were more than 5,000 positive swabs recorded on Friday.

These numbers have largely tracked with official case numbers until the computer system used to log cases – CIDR – was overwhelmed by the third wave. Some positive swabs may not result in the notification of a new confirmed case as a clinical diagnosis is required to rule out factors such as duplicate swabs and previous infection.

Some 9,000 additional new cases will be reported over the coming days.

In both speeches announcing Level 5 restrictions last month, Taoiseach Micheál Martin put the new UK variant of the coronavirus front and centre as a cause of the recent surge.

In his most recent address to the nation on 30 December, he said:

While international research into this new variant is ongoing, it is already very clear that we are dealing with a strain of the disease that spreads much, much more quickly. Indeed, it is spreading at a rate that has surpassed the most pessimistic models available to us.
With the disease spreading much faster, the threat of our health system being overwhelmed and the risk of increased sickness and death among our vulnerable and older populations is obvious.

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206Micheal Martin (1) Martin addressing the nation earlier this week. Source: Tom Honan

While these factors remain, with the chief medical officer warning last night that Ireland’s health service may be unable to cope with the sustained rate of hospitalisations, the results of De Gascun’s analysis jars with the assertion that blame can be laid on the new variant and not other factors.

Although thousands of mutations of the virus which causes Covid-19 have been observed, the new strain first identified in the UK – dubbed B117 or Variant of Concern (VOC) 202012/01 – is feared to be more transmissible than others.

A new study published by London’s Imperial College found that B117 could raise the reproductive number – the number of cases infected by a confirmed case – by as much as as R0.7.

Another study indicated that patients infected with the variant had higher viral loads.

Another recent mutation in South Africa, 501.V2, has also been linked with similar concerns over increased transmissibility, leading to both the UK and South Africa to be subject to travel bans.

Professor Nolan said this afternoon that this variant has not yet been detected in Ireland, but could pose a more significant threat than the UK variant. 

About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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