Two cases of a new sub-variant of Covid-19 of concern were confirmed in Ireland earlier this month, according to the latest report from Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.
In his latest weekly report dated May 13, Dr Holohan said that two cases of BA.4 – a sub-strain of the currently dominant Omicron variant- was detected here during the week of May 7.
However he noted that another sub-strain, BA.5 has not yet been detected here.
Both sub-strains were identified as variants of concern by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) earlier this month after they were first detected in South Africa in January and February and have since become the dominant strains of Covid-19 there.
Both sub-strains have been linked to a resurgence of cases in Portugal while in the UK 115 cases of BA.4 and 80 cases of BA.5 have been detected there.
According to Dr Holohan, both sub-strains appear to be even more transmissible that the current BA.2 sub-strain of Omicron that is currently dominant in Europe and can evade immunity previously afforded through vaccination and prior infection, especially as immunity wanes over time.
Despite this, he said it doesn’t appear that the new sub-strains pose a greater risk of severe illness.
“There is currently no indication of any change in severity for BA.4/BA.5 compared to previous Omicron lineages,” he said in the report.
“We continue to closely monitor emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants and assess any potential threat to population health. In summary, the overall epidemiological situation in Ireland currently provides a broadly positive outlook, albeit we will need to continue to monitor developments with emerging variants over the coming weeks,” he said.
However he cautioned that the proportion of both sub-strains within Europe is “currently very low” with the exception of Portugal and Austria. However, he noted it is still a cause for concern and “although the ECDC has advised that, given the signals of increased growth rate, it is possible that one or both of these sub-lineages may cause increased SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the near future in EU/EEA countries.”
Meanwhile, he said while “there continues to be high levels of infection and a significant number of cases receiving general hospital care, the numbers of detected infections and hospitalised cases have reduced considerably over recent weeks.”
He noted that the hospital system remains strained with few beds available as Covid-19 continues to have an impact on hospital capacity and operations in come areas.
He noted there were 214 patients in hospital with Covid-19 on Sunday May 8 – with 25 in ICU- down from 231 cases the previous Friday.
More than half or 52pc of Covid-19 patients were in hospital as a result of the virus which was the main reason for admission to ICU for half of all ICU patients who tested positive for the virus as of May 10.
More recently, of more than 34,000 PCR tests conducted for the virus last week, 12.8pc were positive.
Meanwhile, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) which monitors the progress of the virus was de-escalated in its emergency response in mid-May “although significant resources remain dedicated to Covid-19, priority work across non-Covid areas is being upscaled with some resources now being diverted to these areas from Covid-19,” he noted.
“The decision to de-escalate to level 1 is based on the changed epidemiological situation for Covid-19, with a decreasing burden of severe Covid-19 disease, and also emerging priorities across other disease areas,” he said.
As a result, the HPSC’s epidemiology reports will be scaled back from daily to weekly reports.
However, he cautioned that “it remains important to provide clear guidance and communication with the public on the evolving disease profile and a cultural shift towards embedding individual and collective personal behaviours to mitigate against Covid-19 and other respiratory infections.”
He said anyone with Covid-19 symptoms should continue to self isolate “until 48 hours after symptoms have substantially or fully resolved.”
“Please do not attend any social events, work, school or college if you have symptoms.”
He added that anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 should self-isolate for seven days from date of onset of symptoms, or if asymptomatic, the date of first positive test.
He said mask wearing is still advised on public transport and in healthcare settings and for anyone who is at high risk if infected “particularly while disease incidence is high.”
He added that “anyone who wishes to wear a mask should not be discouraged from doing so” and people who are vulnerable to COVID-19 are “further advised to be aware of the risk associated with activities they may choose to engage in and to take measures to optimally protect themselves.”
He also advised that many people who were infected with COVID-19 over the Christmas period will now be eligible for a first booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine while those over 65 are now eligible for their second Covid-19 booster jab.