Cillian de Gascun: ‘Six or seven out of ten’ – Nphet member Cillian de Gascun rates his level of concern over Omicron variant

Omicron has a “huge number” of mutations but it’s not inevitable that the virus will become dominant, the director of UCD’s National Virus Reference Laboratory has said.

phet member Dr Cillian De Gascun said there are some mutations that do increase transmissibility and do have an impact on vaccine effectiveness.

“But the two reasons that we’re concerned at the moment, the first is the virus itself has a huge number of mutations. There are some mutations that we have seen described before that do increase transmissibility and do have an impact on vaccine effectiveness,” he told RTÉ’s Drivetime.

“Then the second picture is what South Africa are seeing they’re seeing an incredible increase in the growth rate of cases and an increase in hospitalisations. The question that we don’t yet know is whether that increase in hospitalisations is disproportionate to the number of cases or whether it’s equivalent to what they would have seen with Delta.”

Dr De Gascun said he would rate his own personal level of concern as a “six or seven out of 10”.

“It’s not necessarily inevitable that the virus will become dominant but it’s certainly a concern based on what we know about the virus to date and about the evolving picture in South Africa. My personal level of concern I’m probably around six or seven out of 10.

“We should be really concerned about the about of Delta we have at the moment. In relation to Omicron if it has a genuine transmissibility advantage over Delta then we have to be significantly concerned because we saw how quickly Alpha emerged around the turn of the year last year.

“The problem is more transmissibility does lead to more cases and does lead to more people in hospital,” he said.

Dr De Gascun said that ultimately the virus is dependent on people to come together and socialise so that it can spread.

“We’re entering into a time period when typically, people are indoors more often and it’s more difficult to ventilate and people tend to socialise more. The virus can only transmit from person to person if people come in close contact with each other,” he said.

Dr De Gascun said Nphet’s meeting this evening had ended and the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan is preparing the correspondence that will go to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

The National Public Health Emergency Team met today to discuss the current state of Covid-19 situation and the emergence of the new Omicron variant in Ireland.

Dr De Gascun added: “It really is déjà vu all over again. As a society we want to make sure that January 2021 is not repeated in January 2022. It’s a bit miserable but this is what’s happening with this pandemic.”

He said the first case of Omicron that was detected in Ireland returned last week from one of the designated countries.

Dr De Gascun said through an element of “good fortune” the case was identified fairly quickly.

“What happened was a sample was taken towards the end of last week and as it happened, through an element of good fortune, one of our colleagues identified fairly quickly that it exhibited the s gene pattern that has been associated with Omicron.

“That case returned last week from one of the designated countries. Although we know that Omicron in some shape or form has been circulating since the middle of 2020, we can see from the viruses that we have now it would appear that something happened in early October.

“This is a recent emergence we don’t know from where it emerged yet but it’s either been circulating in the community undetected which seems unlikely or perhaps it has evolved in a chronically infected individual.

“We’re waiting for the laboratory work on the virus to come back and give us a little bit more information,” he said.

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