Coronavirus may be stable in Ireland now, but the delta variant looms

Limitations after HSE cyberattack may be masking true prevalence of variant in State

The delta variant increases your risk of hospitalisation and reduces vaccine effectiveness, particularly if you only have one dose. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The delta variant increases your risk of hospitalisation and reduces vaccine effectiveness, particularly if you only have one dose. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

That the National Public Health Emergency Team didn’t bother to hold a public briefing this week is the best indication of the stability around Covid-19 at present.

Case numbers are holding steady and hospitals are emptying out of coronavirus patients, even as society opens up.

The only cloud on the horizon is the delta variant first identified in India, though official data shows the number of cases in the Republic remains stable.

Latest figures record 126 cases of the variant, barely up on the previous week. On the face of it, there is little to worry about.

The true picture is more complicated, though. Less than 30 per cent of cases are genetically sequenced, so the actual number of variant cases is higher. And due to the cyberattack on the HSE’s IT systems, many recent cases were sent to Germany for sequencing, so there is a delay in the reporting of results.

Across the Border and the Irish Sea, different trends are playing out. In Northern Ireland, almost 25 per cent of cases are delta variants and a late summer wave of cases and hospitalisations is being forecast.

In England, the delta variant is firmly in the driving seat. Cases are doubling every 4.5 days in some parts as the variant accounts for 75 per cent of infections. The UK infection rate has risen above that of Europe for the first time in months.

There are lots of uncertainties around the early data emerging from Britain, but it does appear that the delta variant is up to 60 per cent more transmissible than the alpha (UK) variant. It also increases your risk of hospitalisation and reduces vaccine effectiveness, particularly if you only have one dose. Over 6 per cent of English cases were fully vaccinated.

The variant is unlikely to derail the continued easing of restrictions here, because almost all of the most vulnerable people are fully vaccinated (the exception being people in their 60s waiting for a second dose of AstraZeneca).

The rapid emergence of this fit variant of Covid-19 highlights the need to vaccinate as fast as possible. In England, it has spread rapidly among unvaccinated populations, especially schoolchildren.

This has implications for public policy here. Should we be vaccinating children (Germany has just decided to limit the vaccination of children to pre-existing conditions)? Will masks and other measures be needed in schools again this autumn? Will booster shots be needed, especially for those who got adenovaccines (AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson)?

The delta variant is likely to eventually become dominant in Ireland, and it may be succeeded in time by other, even fitter variants. But with vaccine protection available to the vulnerable, and most cases occurring among the young and therefore mild, the State will have to decide what level of illness it is prepared to accept as society attempts to function normally once again.

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