Government Ministers will be briefed on Tuesday morning regarding the sharp increase in the coronavirus Delta variant in Ireland over the past week as it emerged this mutation now accounts for 20 per cent of all new infections.
There is growing disquiet within Government and medical circles over the rapid increase in cases of the highly transmissible variant in recent days. Last night, State chief medical officer Tony Holohan confirmed that Delta is estimated to account for up to one in five cases reported in the last week.
“There has been a concerning increase in transmission of the Delta variant in Ireland,” he said.
“We have also seen a number of outbreaks associated with this variant reported in the last week,” he added.
“This is similar to a pattern being seen in a number of other EU member states. In the UK, Delta has been the dominant strain of Covid-19 for a number of weeks and now they are beginning to experience a rise in hospitalisations.”
The new variant is considered to be over 50 per cent more transmissible than the high transmissible UK variant. In addition, those who have received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine are not protected fully. The first dose of AstraZeneca is only 33 per cent effective against Delta, while the second makes it over 60 per cent effective. *
With a likelihood that Delta will become the dominant variant in Ireland within weeks – as has happened in other EU countries – there is concern that those who are not vaccinated fully will be more susceptible. As of the weekend, one-third of eligible adults had been vaccinated fully although that proportion will increase dramatically as the programme ramps up into July. Some 330,000 doses are scheduled to be administered this week alone.
Dr Holohan referred on Twitter to the risks associated with Delta: “It is really important that people who are not fully vaccinated continue to follow all public health advice. This includes people who are waiting for their second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“People should take a vaccine when it is offered to them and in the meantime they should continue to avoid crowds, limit contacts, avoid meeting up indoors and work from home where possible.”
Chief medical officers on both sides of the Border met last Friday to discuss concerns over the Delta variant.
Worries over northwest
Sources familiar with the memo on coronavirus being prepared for today’s Cabinet meeting said officials are especially concerned about importation of cases into the Republic via the northwest.
“We are worried about Donegal and Derry,” admitted one official.
Senior officials also said the arrival of holidaymakers from the UK during the summer will also increase the risk of spread. As of Monday, 99 per cent of newly confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK are now the Delta variant, according to Public Health England. More than 95 per cent of cases in Portugal are also the Delta variant.
There have been clusters of the mutation recorded in recent days in Northern Ireland, mostly in the northwest, including Derry.
In the UK, the gap between the first and second doses of AstraZeneca was lengthened to allow the vaccination of more of the population. The rapid increase of Delta infections and lower protection afforded by the first dose prompted British prime minister Boris Johnson to postpone the final phase of reopening there last week.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he was very worried about the Delta variant. “We know it's now the dominant variant in Britain” and it was spiking in different places. “We have a spike in Derry city and … the public health experts say it's only a matter of time before it becomes the dominant variant here.
“We have a lot of people who are not fully vaccinated, we have younger people who have not been vaccinated yet at all and the emerging evidence from the UK is that this could be significantly more severe, so the number being used at the moment is it leads to 2.6 times on average more hospitalisations including younger people. So we have to take this and we are taking this absolutely seriously” he told Newstalk on Monday evening.
He said the one age group where covid cases were rising was among those aged 19-24 years.
Asked if its spread here could impact the further lifting of restrictions as it did in the UK he said: “Well these things are always a possibility and I’m not making any predictions to be absolutely clear”.
While some Ministers have privately expressed concern about the short-term risks for people who are not yet vaccinated fully, there is general agreement in government that the next phase of reopening – including indoor dining – will proceed as planned on July 5th.
“My view is that things proceed as planned,” said a senior Minister last night.
Sam McConkey, professor of infectious diseases at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said while the new variant was largely affecting younger, unvaccinated cohorts, it still carried significant risks.
“It is not a trivial thing and it is not the case that there is no mortality associated with it,” he said.
“My view is that it would not be good public health policy to let it spread rampant in the population, and it adds a huge urgency to getting people vaccinated.”
It also might make the case for a more intensive testing regime, he said.
“It is more infectious so maybe we should be testing casual contacts, ie contacts of contacts.”
Travel was not something which should be encouraged he said, not necessarily due to the Delta variant, but the risk of as yet unknown mutations of the disease.
“Even before this became an issue I would have said international travel is not something we should be doing, I’m largely with Tony Holohan on this. What I would be worried about is the evolution of another variant which could spread widely among people who are vaccinated. That would be a terrifying prospect.”
A further 284 confirmed cases of the virus were reported in the Republic yesterday. A total 53 people are being treated in hospital for the disease with 13 in intensive care.
* This article was amended on Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021