Three cases of the new Indian strain of coronavirus were detected in Ireland yesterday – as 2021 is set to become the “year of the variant".
Two of the cases are as a result of travel and the third is still under investigation.
India was added to the UK’s red-list countries for mandatory hotel quarantine after cases of the variant were found there too.
The Government's expert advisory group on travel will meet later this week to discuss whether to add India to the hotel quarantine list.
The group of public health officials which advises Health Minister Stephen Donnelly about which countries to place on the hotel quarantine list will meet on Thursday to consider the latest global epidemiological data.
India is likely to be central to its deliberations after Britain and Northern Ireland added the country to its travel red list in the last 24 hours.
The decision means anyone who has been to India in the past 10 days before their arrival in the UK must complete hotel quarantine.
Dr Cillian De Gascun of the National Virus Reference Laboratory said there was no real world evidence yet that this particular variant was more infectious or more deadly.
There are anxieties around the variant because of the surge of infection currently in India.
However, he said it was not clear if the variant was causing the surge or riding it.
He stressed the need for vigilance.
It is a “double mutant” version of the virus, which he said is “not terribly helpful” from a virus perspective.
The confirmation of the new strain in Ireland comes as one virologist said this morning he would agree that 2021 will be “the year of the variant”, and predicted more and more would pop up.
People should “take a breath” when it comes to Covid-19 variants and “not freak out about them” as many more will arrive this year, Dr Gerald Barry has said.
The UCD virology lecturer said that while the Indian variant - which has been recently discovered in Ireland - has mutations that make it concerning, he said there was little data on it as of yet.
“It’s an interesting variant as it has a collection of mutations that are causing changes in the spike protein, and it’s a collection of changes that haven’t been seen before,” Dr Barry said on Morning Ireland.
“While there is relatively little data on this variant, the mutations seen independently in other variants all indicated either that the virus will have increased transmissibility or may reduce the effectiveness of the current vaccines.
“That’s why there are concerns around this variant as it seems to have mutations that, in other variants, give it an advantage.
“We’re relying on the UK for data..as they have in-depth sequencing and they have already found four mutations to this spike protein. While they are calling it a variant of interest, the suggestion is it will become a variant of concern”.
Israel has registered eight cases of the variant and believes that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is at least partially effective against it, an Israeli health official said on Tuesday.
“The impression is that the Pfizer vaccine has efficacy against it, albeit a reduced efficacy," the ministry's director-general, Hezi Levy, told Kan public radio, saying the number of cases of the variant in Israel now stood at eight.
Dr Barry has said the variant has led to a massive surge in cases in India, where it was first discovered, as they confirmed roughly 260,000 new cases yesterday.
“That’s a huge surge and probably an underestimation of the level of cases they are seeing every day there.
Dr Barry says that “in theory, it’s predictable” that the Indian variant will become a variant of concern for Ireland alongside the UK, Brazilian and South African variants.
“There are studies ongoing on the ability of antibodies to neutralise the virus and data will come out in the coming weeks,” he said.
The virologist said he would agree that 2021 will be “the year of the variant” and predicted more and more would pop up.
Dr Barry urged people to “take a breath when it comes to variants and not freak out about them” as we will be hearing about “plenty more” of them this year.
He said the virus is constantly learning about how to infect humans and live with us, adding that “it hadn’t reached its ‘perfect state’ yet”.
“It’s likely that other changes are going to continue to happen. The concern would be that a variant would pop up and would be resistant to the vaccines we’re using.
Dr Barry said it’s the collective duty of everyone across the world to keep case numbers down as the “more bodies it goes in, the more the virus can change.
So far, 55 cases of the South African variant have been detected here.
The other variant of concern – the P1 variant from Brazil – now accounts for 24 cases sequenced here.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the way the Indian variant has been described in various online reports would lead you to think the “world was coming to an end”, but the speculation was inflated and not related to the real-world experience so far.
Meanwhile, pregnant women have been advised to make their own choice whether to take a Covid-19 vaccine as it emerged three expectant mothers are very unwell in intensive care after catching the virus.
The women are being treated for complications of Covid-19, which is known to be more dangerous if caught during pregnancy.
Dr Peter McKenna, head of the National Women and Infants Health Programme in the HSE, said no pregnant woman has died due to the virus.
Commenting on whether they should take the Covid-19 vaccine, he said pregnant women were not involved in trials but there is accumulating evidence around its safety.
Currently the advice is that it be taken by women with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, but it is not routinely recommended.
He said whether to take the vaccine when offered is a “personal choice” for each pregnant woman.
“They should assess their own individual risk and decide along those lines,” Dr McKenna added.
He said there was still a lot of coronavirus circulating and public health measures continue to apply to pregnant women.
Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland
He was speaking as the Department of Health reported no new deaths but a further 403 new cases.
Separately, commenting on the Covid-19 situation here currently, Dr Glynn said there was ongoing improvement across all age groups but it will be weeks yet before enough people are vaccinated to take the burden from people to follow public health measures.
Public health doctors are reporting outbreaks in different households meeting up and cases where children who have symptoms are going to school, he added.
GPs are still seeing high levels of virus and cases are still at the level they were in November when the country was worried about the extent of spread.
He pointed out the average number of close contacts people have had remained around 2.6 for several weeks but if they rise to three or four the virus will start to spread again.
There should be better indications later this week on the impact construction and the reopening schools have had on virus levels.
Meanwhile, maternity hospitals are due to review restrictions around partners and visiting in light of the improvements here.