It is “too early” to tell whether a new variant of Covid-19 identified in the UK has reached Ireland, an Irish public health expert has said.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said Irish public health experts had received formal notification of a new strain of the virus on Monday through its official early warning system with European colleagues and the UK.
“There’s very little information available on it at the moment,” Dr Glynn said.
“And there’s further epidemiological and virological investigation going on by colleagues in the UK.
It's too early at this stage to say whether the variant has been seen in this countryDr Ronan Glynn
“Obviously, we will be interested in the potential effects of this variant in terms of transmission, and in terms of the effect on the immune response, but it’s really too early at this stage to say whether or not it has any such effects.”
He added: “We just really need to wait for more information to come out. It’s too early at this stage to say whether the variant has been seen in this country.”
Experts in the UK have identified a new variant of coronavirus which is spreading rapidly in the south of England.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday there was nothing to suggest this new strain was more likely to cause serious disease.
A further 264 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in Ireland on Monday by the National Public Health Emergency Team.
Two additional deaths linked to the virus were also reported.
Of the 264 cases notified by the Department of Health on Monday, 79 were in Dublin, 24 in Donegal, 19 in Kerry, 18 in Limerick, 14 in Kildare, 14 in Wexford and the remaining 96 cases are spread across 16 other counties.
Dr Tony Holohan warned the public that Ireland was still dealing with a rise in Covid-19 cases.
We think we are beginning to see a change in the pattern of transmission of the virus - an increase in the number of cases overallDr Tony Holohan
He said even though the number of cases on Monday, at 264, was lower than Sunday’s high figure of 429, the five-day average had increased slightly.
The five-day rolling average is now 312 cases, up from 258 last Thursday.
“We’re in an increasing situation still,” Dr Holohan said.
He added: “We think we are beginning to see a change in the pattern of transmission of the virus – an increase in the number of cases overall.”
Ireland still has the lowest seven-day and 14-day rate in Europe but Dr Holohan said he was concerned that the pattern was changing and that could change.
He reiterated Nphet’s message to people to plan ahead for the Christmas period, limit social interactions as much as they can now, to choose between all the measures that are possible.
The national 14-day incidence rate of the virus per 100,000 population now stands at 83.4.
As of 2pm on Monday, 215 Covid-19 patients were in hospital, including 33 people in intensive care units with the virus.
There were 17 additional hospital admissions in the previous 24 hours.
At its briefing on Monday, Nphet moved to reassure the public that any vaccine approved by Europe for use in Ireland would be safe.
Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) chief executive Lorraine Nolan said the public could have full confidence in the vaccine approval system and that there would be no lowering of the bar.
She said although Europe was still awaiting authorisation of the first vaccine, “getting to this point is a remarkable achievement for science”.
“While we do understand the deep public health need and indeed the excitement around the availability of a vaccine, it is important that the European Medicines Agency takes the necessary time to conduct a thorough scientific evaluation of these vaccines,” she said.
There will be no lowering of the bar on this. All vaccine applications will be reviewed just as carefully and as rigorously as for any other medicineLorraine Nolan, Health Products Regulatory Authority
Ms Nolan added that the benefits of vaccines must always outweigh the possible risks.
“While we have accelerated the regulatory process, it is important to stress that this will not compromise the detailed and thorough nature of scientific scrutiny,” she said.
“There will be no lowering of the bar on this. All vaccine applications will be reviewed just as carefully and as rigorously as for any other medicine.”
Ms Nolan said that Covid-19 vaccines will be a “hugely positive development” but said they would not bring an end to the pandemic and only serve as an “additional measure” in the fight against the virus.
She also said she understood the public’s “understandable concern” over the pace of the development of the vaccines compared with other vaccines but she said it was due to the high levels of investment and scientific research.
“There may be a thinking that standards have somehow been dropped in relation to the approval of these vaccines and that is absolutely not the case,” Ms Nolan said.
“These vaccines will have to meet the same regulatory standards as any other vaccine. The same data requirements will apply. Regulators across the globe are absolutely resolute in relation to that.
“The public can have real confidence that when these vaccines are authorised in Europe – and certainly what’s happened in the UK and the US is very encouraging – that is because regulators are confident and that they are safe and that they work.”