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Health Minister’s deep concern for what may be ‘worst’ strain of the virus yet

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said he is “deeply concerned” following the discovery of what is believed could be the worst Covid-19 variant identified.

he B.1.1.529 variant may be driving a spike in cases in South Africa.

It has been found in 77 cases in South Africa, four in Botswana and one in Hong Kong, in a patient who had recently visited South Africa.

While expressing his worry about reports of the new variant, Minister Donnelly said no cases had yet been identified in Europe so far.

The World Health Organisation is meeting today to assess the significance of the variant.

Contact has been made with colleagues in Northern Ireland and the Department of Health is waiting for advice from the European Centre for Disease Control.

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory has urged countries to monitor samples of the virus for the variant.

The National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) is expected to add the variant to its whole genome sequencing carried out to check what variants are circulating here.

It currently has the capacity to investigate around 1,200 specimens a week.

The emergence of the new variant and its potential to spread to Europe has heightened as people increase their international travel around Christmas.

The concern surrounds the variant’s unusually high level of mutations, some of which may make the virus more transmissible or undermine the effectiveness of vaccines.

South Africa has seen a spike in cases in recent weeks, particularly in Gauteng province where most of the cases of the new variant have been detected.

The World Health Organisation is expected to name the variant under its Greek letter system.

It would join other variants such as Alpha and Delta and be called Nu.

Professor Tulio De Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-
Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), which identified the 77 cases in South Africa, said the variant had a “very unusual constellation of mutations”.

However, he said its significance was still unclear, with scientists now monitoring it to assess how dangerous it may be.

Viruses mutate all the time, and only some of the mutations change how the virus behaves.

It can be sequenced, which is a more in-depth form of laboratory analysis and also picked up by one form of PCR test.

It comes as the HSE is under pressure to escalate the roll-out of booster vaccines to counter waning immunity.

HSE chief Paul Reid said the aim is to increase the number of booster vaccines administered to around 270,000 a week.

It is working to increase the number of staff involved in delivering the vaccines.

Some centres will offer walk-in appointments to healthcare workers and people in their 60s who are eligible and five months after their second AstraZeneca vaccine.

However, it is limited to just some centres, certain days and restricted times.

People aged 60 to 69 are urged to check the HSE website for information.

Damien McCallion, who oversees the vaccination rollout, said that 85pc of the over-80s have had a booster shot, 60pc of the 70- to 79-year-olds and 10pc of people in their 60s.

Some 84pc of people in nursing homes over 60 have had a booster and 51pc of healthcare workers.

Among the people with very weakened immune system coverage is at 74pc.

They will be begin to offer vaccines to people with underlying conditions from next week. It comes as 4,764 new cases of the virus were reported yesterday.

The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital fell below the 600 mark to 598 and 126 were in intensive care.

Asked about the high levels of infection among primary school children Dr Colm Henry, HSE chief clinical officer, said that for the greater part they pick up the virus from households and not school.

“There are some instances of children getting it at school but since September, as the spread of infection increased in older age groups, they were infected in houses,” Dr Henry said.Contact has been made with colleagues in Northern Ireland and the Department of Health is waiting for advice.

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