Covid-19: Top public health official warns on rapid reopening

Mutations can ‘exploit fact that we are only partially protected in July’, says Prof Philip Nolan

Ireland runs the risk of a spike in variant cases this summer if it moves too quickly to increase indoor social mixing in July or allows the importation of Covid-19, a senior public health official has warned.

By July, Ireland will have at best 50 per cent protection against the UK variant and less against the Indian variant, assuming 80 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated, Prof Philip Nolan told The Irish Times.

This will rise to 60 per cent by mid-July and 70 per cent by the end of the month as the immune response grows and second doses are administered, the National Public Health Emergency Team member said.

“I’m less worried about vaccine effectiveness, more worried about the possibility that B.1.617.2 is significantly more transmissible, and that either or both variants will exploit the fact that we are only partially protected in July.”

Other Irish scientists called for travel restrictions to be further tightened after a new study showed the Indian variant diminishes vaccine effectiveness.

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were only 33 per cent effective against the variant, three weeks after a first dose, the study by Public Health England (PHE) showed. Effectiveness after two doses rose to 88 per cent for Pfizer and 60 per cent for AstraZeneca.

In the UK, B.1.617.2, which was first identified in India, now accounts for almost half of all sequenced cases and is likely to replace the UK variant, or B.1.1.7, within a month, according to the study.

Almost 4,000 cases of B.1.617.2 have been sequenced in the UK, and 72 in Ireland. State chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has described the Indian variant as the "black cloud on the horizon" in an otherwise positive disease situation.

Epidemiologist Prof Gerry Killeen of University College Cork said Ireland should impose mandatory hotel quarantine on travellers from the UK "for a couple of months". Prof Killeen said the PHE study showed Ireland needed to do the same thing to protect against the Indian variant as it did for P1, another more transmissible variant first identified in Brazil.

This included putting South American states with large numbers of P1 cases on the mandatory hotel quarantine list and enhancing testing and tracing where clusters of the variant were found.

Prof Killeen described as “worrisome” the finding of reduced effectiveness for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines after the first dose.

Six states – Andorra, Georgia, Kuwait, Mongolia, Nigeria and Puerto Rico – were removed from Ireland’s mandatory hotel quarantine list at the weekend.

International travel

However, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said he did not expect concerns about cases of the Indian variant rising in England to derail the Government’s plan to reopen international travel later this summer because more people will be fully vaccinated by then.

There would also be a gap between the announcement of the plan to restart non-essential international travel after the Cabinet meets on Friday and when that reopening actually takes place in late summer, he said.

“At that stage, the vast majority of people will have got two vaccines and particularly those who are medically vulnerable will be several weeks after their second dose. Unless something changes, I except we will still be able to set some sort of timeline,” he said.

He said a period of time was also needed between the announcement of latest reopening plan and the return of travel to allow the EU set up the technology and protocols for vaccinated travellers under the proposed digital green certificate for travel.

Mr Ryan said the mandatory hotel quarantine system would remain “as a tool” as international travel reopens but that it would be “much more fine tuned or targeted” at “areas of concern” where there are a very high level of variants of concern.