Q&A: What is the Brazilian variant and why are experts worried?

Three cases of variant, directly associated with recent travel to State, have been identified

Ambulances at St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin. Experts are worried the Brazilian variant may be more transmissible leading to more cases and deaths. File photograph: Patrick Bolger/Bloomberg

Ambulances at St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin. Experts are worried the Brazilian variant may be more transmissible leading to more cases and deaths. File photograph: Patrick Bolger/Bloomberg

 

What is the Brazilian Covid-19 variant?
There are already thousands of variants circulating of the original coronavirus that started the pandemic. Viruses make copies of themselves to spread, and mutate as they do so, making tiny genetic changes along the way.

Less than a handful of the many, many variants are giving experts cause for concern. The latest is the Brazilian (also known as P1) variant

Why is it worrying experts?
Experts are worried not because of any strong evidence at this stage that the variants cause more severe illness, but because they may be more transmissible, or easier to catch, which could lead to more infections and deaths.

Along with the UK or Kent variant and the South African variant, the Brazilian variant has mutated in a way that may mean it spreads easier. It was blamed for a huge resurgence of Covid-19 in the Brazilian city of Manaus in December and January. There was also some evidence that people who were previously infected with Covid-19 in Brazil were reinfected with the new variant.

How widespread is it in Ireland?
Three cases have been identified in the Republic, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) announced on Friday. The three cases were all directly associated with recent travel from Brazil. Anyone flying into Ireland from Brazil is currently required to quarantine at home for 14 days. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said all three cases cases travelled to Ireland in recent weeks and “went into self-isolation as appropriate”. “The three cases are all part of the one cluster. Public health investigation and follow-up of these cases is ongoing,” she added. 

Does this have any impact on vaccinations?
Like the South African variant, first detected in Ireland last month, the Brazilian strain includes a key mutation, called E484K, which may help the virus evade antibodies, part of the immune system.

Ongoing studies suggest some of the current vaccines – which were designed around the earlier strains of the coronavirus – may offer less protection against the new more transmissible strains, but research is continuing.

Also, experts say that existing vaccines can be tweaked – within weeks or months in cases – to adapt to new mutations of the coronavirus.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said further studies are required to determine whether the Brazilian variant “is likely to have an impact on vaccine effectiveness or infection severity.”

Is anything being done to stop further cases arriving?
Dr Glynn warned anyone who has recently travelled from Brazil, or any of the other 19 countries designated as Category 2, that they are required by law to self-isolate at home for two weeks.

“In addition any such passengers should phone any GP or GP out of hours service to arrange a free Covid-19 test – the test should be done five days after you arrived in Ireland or as soon as possible after those five days,” he said.

“Whatever the result of the test, you must complete the 14 day period of quarantine.”

The Government is also preparing mandatory hotel quarantine laws for anyone arriving from Category 2 countries

Is there anything that can be done?
Yes, the public health advice remains the same. People should adhere to the restrictions in place, wash their hands, keep their distance from others and wear a face mask to help prevent the spread of any variant of the coronavirus.