Another potentially worrying coronavirus variant has been identified in Ireland for the first time, according to public health officials.
A single case of the B1525 variant, which emerged earlier in the UK and Nigeria, has been found through genome sequencing, a National Public Health Emergency Team briefing has heard.
The variant has a number of mutations that may help the virus evade neutralising antibodies and could therefore lessen vaccine effectiveness.
A further four cases of the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa have also been found here, bringing the total to 15, according to Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory. Most are related to travel, he said.
The number of cases of the P1 variant first identified in Brazil remains at three, he added.
Some 15 per cent of cases are now being sequenced so that variants can be detected, Dr de Gascun said.
A further 35 deaths of Covid-19 patients were reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team on Thursday. One of the deaths dates from November and 12 from January, while 21 occurred in February.
Those who died ranged in age from 53 to 102 years and the median age was 85.
This brings to 4,271 the total number of deaths in the pandemic.
Nphet also reported 613 more confirmed cases of the disease.
“We are making good progress and can see that many of the key indicators of disease levels in our communities are continuing to fall,” according to deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn. “This progress is the reason we are able to reopen our schools in a cautious and phased basis.”
“However, we must remember that Covid-19 is still circulating at a high level and, we are still seeing positivity rates of around 15 per cent in the community. As we see more of our children return to school next week, it is important that we continue to follow all of the public health guidance, including on the school run.”
Of the new cases, 224 were in Dublin, 39 in Limerick, 37 in Meath, 34 in Westmeath and 33 in Offaly, with and the remaining 246 cases spread across all other counties.
The median age of cases was 34 years and 66 per cent were under 45.
The 14-day incidence of the disease now stands at 226 cases per 100,000 people nationally. Offaly has the highest county incidence, followed by Galway and Dublin.
The reproduction number, a measure of how many other people a case infects, now stands at 0.6-0.9, according to Prof Philip Nolan, chair of the Nphet epidemiological modelling advisory group.
In the last week in January, almost 1,400 healthcare workers contracted Covid-19; that number was less than 300 last week.
Up to Saturday, 359,616 doses of Covid-19 vaccine had been administered. This included 226,291 first doses and 133,325 second doses.
Prof Nolan said “continued, but slower progress” was being made against all indicators of the disease.
Incidence is still high and the situation remains “precarious”, but suppression of the disease is being maintained.
The seven-day average of cases is half what it was four weeks ago and case number are declining by 2 per cent daily.
Prof Nolan said although incidence had risen among 19- to 24-year-olds this was due to specific outbreaks rather than a sustained increase in this age group.
Defending Nphet’s decision not to set specific targets for lifting restrictions, Dr Glynn said it had a responsibility not to give “false hope”. It would be “disingenuous” to say certain things would happen on a particular date given the need to continue suppressing the disease and the challenge posed by the new variant first identified in the UK.
“If keep down numbers we’ll be in a much brighter place by the end of March,” he said.
He said there was “early and clear evidence” of the protective effect of vaccination in long-term care facilities, where there has been a “sudden and sharp” decrease in cases. The number of cases has dropped from 1,250 to 200 in three weeks.
Meanwhile, the number of healthcare worker infections has fallen “precipitously” – down 93 per cent from mid-January, compared to a 77 per cent fall in infections overall.
Meanwhile, a further five people in Northern Ireland have died after testing positive for Covid-19 and 281 new cases have been confirmed, according to the latest update from the Northern Ireland Department of Health.
It brings the death toll to 2,048 and the total number of cases to 111,932.
On Thursday morning, there were 341 Covid-positive patients in hospital in the North, of whom 44 were in intensive care. – Additional reporting: PA