Covid-19: Irish cases of worrying variant double to six

Dáil committee also told of South African mutation; both variants bypass immunity

Irish cases of a potentially worrying variant of coronavirus that originated in Brazil has doubled to six, according to health officials.

No further details of the cases of the P1 variant of concern were provided by Health Service Executive officials attending the Dáil health committee on Tuesday.

An enhanced process of contact tracing is in place for these cases, with all contacts being tested and contacts of contacts having to self-isolate, according to Lorraine Doherty, director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

There remain 15 Irish cases of B351, another variant of concern that first emerged in South Africa, she said.


Both variants carry a mutation in the spike protein – the part of the virus that allows it to infect a host – called E484K, which helps bypass immunity from past infection.

Officials said antigen testing is to be used twice a week in some meat plants, in addition to the existing monthly serial testing that uses standard PCR technology.

While one antigen test has been validated for use in this setting, Dr Doherty said antigen testing was resource intensive, “not rapid” and did not perform so well in asymptomatic cases when prevalence of the disease in the community is falling, as it is now.

The provision of extra medical intern posts during the first wave of the pandemic last year was always understood as a “once-off”, HSE chief clinical officer Colm Henry told the committee.

Last year, 1,100 medical students were offered intern posts, up from the normal number of 734 posts. Almost 1,000 took up the offer and started in late May, two weeks ahead of the usual twice-yearly rotation of medical staff.

Responding to calls from TDs for the same number of intern posts to be offered this year, Dr Henry said this year, with case numbers falling and the availability of vaccines, the need for additional interns is not the same as in 2020.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid said 1.1 million Covid-19 vaccines will be delivered to Ireland in the first three months of the year. This is the fourth time the forecast has been reduced.

Between 15 and 17 changes have been made to the vaccine rollout since the start of the year, due to changes to the operating plan, deliveries, prioritisation of groups and sequencing of patients, he said.

Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Acknowledging “drift” in the forecast number of doses to be delivered to Ireland, Mr Reid said about 1.1 million to 1.2 million vaccines will be supplied by the end of this month or the start of April, with 175,000 due to arrive on the last day of this month.

He said Ireland would receive 600,000 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the second quarter, assuming it was approved by the European Medicines Agency later this week. However, supplies would be “back-ended” in the period, with “smaller numbers” coming in April.

An original figure of 1.7 million expected doses forecast in January was based on advance purchase agreements with manufacturers. This was reduced to a forecast of 1.4 million and then lowered again to 1.24 million, he said.

Supply issues have caused “high levels of frustration” for the HSE in the first three months of the rollout, said Mr Reid.

There should be greater predictability in supplies during the second quarter of the year, though there may be supply “swings and roundabouts”, he added.

Separately, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Government was “disappointed” with issues that have arisen in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the first three months of the year, though he insisted there has been “very good progress” in protecting the most vulnerable.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.