A Cork-based expert in infectious diseases has urged the Government to take urgent action against the growing threat of the Omicron variant which he described as a ‘different beast’ compared to other Covid-19 variants.
Speaking to The Echo, AXA Research Chair of Applied Pathogen Ecology at University College Cork and one of the founding members of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group (ISAG) Gerry Killeen said the Government needs to ‘act now’ to save lives.
“They have to act now. I think it is going to get nasty. We just need to limit the damage as much as we can.”
The call to action comes as concern mounts over the growing threat from the Omicron variant.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said yesterday it is estimated the Omicron variant now represents 27% of all new Covid-19 cases in Ireland.
Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Donnelly said: “Last week the Omicron variant made up about 1% of all new cases in Ireland. By the weekend it was up to 5%.
“On Tuesday, the rate that was reported was 14%. Today, just two days later, I can confirm that the Omicron variant now comprises over 27% of all new cases.”
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) met yesterday to discuss the situation.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said that he believes it is likely that there will be some changes around Covid-19 restrictions as the Christmas period approaches.
Mr Killeen said he believed the time to act was a couple of weeks ago, but that “we can save an awful lot of lives by moving now”.
He added: “Our Government will have to do things that won’t be universally popular. The easy stuff is asking us to limit our social contacts. The hard part is closing down pubs coming into Christmas time.
“The one thing that is super clear about Omicron is that it is way ahead of the rest of the variants in terms of getting around immunity. This is a different beast from what we have seen before.
“We have got a booster programme running in parallel which is great but it won’t be able to keep pace with this if we allow it to run at its natural pace. We just got to slow it down as much as we can.
“The booster works well, but it doesn’t work perfectly. It will give you 70% to 75% protection. That is good, but that still leaves 25% to 30% of people who will get hit hard.”
Mr Killeen said that “the whole idea that we are all vaccinated therefore we are all protected doesn’t stand up against Omicron”.
Yesterday, members of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group appealed to the Government to take action to protect the public and the health service from Delta and the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.
In a statement, the members urged the Government to implement temporary closure of non-essential travel and indoor hospitality until the country emerges from the forthcoming surge, increase capacity for testing, sequencing, case finding, contact tracing, and supported isolation.
It also said it wanted decisive policies and action on ventilation, air filtration, and mask-wearing and called for antigen tests to be made freely available in pharmacies with clear guidance on how and when to use them.
In addition the group has called for an accelerated vaccination programme and universal use of Covid passports to facilitate automated contact tracing, much as Australia has, by scanning QR codes for individuals entering any venue or event.
It also called for more support and regulation for the next year for safer environments for travel, social events, hospitality, and entertainment.
Meanwhile, new figures show that nine local electoral areas in Cork have recorded 14-day incidence rates of the virus which were above the national average.
According to newly released data from the Covid-19 data hub, which relates to the 14-day period to December 13, the Cobh local electoral area recorded the highest 14-day incidence rate of the virus in Cork at 1,793.8 per 100,000 population.
The figure is significantly higher than the national average incidence rate of 1,305.1 per 100,000 of the population. A total of 612 cases of the virus were recorded in the local electoral area over the same period, a decrease on the 629 cases recorded for the previous 14-day period.
It was followed by the Cork City South West local electoral area which has an incidence rate of 1,730.1 per 100,000 people, recording 814 cases. Bandon-Kinsale local electoral area had an incidence of 1,642.1, jumping from 1,599.2 last week. And 612 cases were recorded in the local electoral area, up from 596 cases recorded last week.
The Cork City North West local electoral area had a 14-day incidence rate of 1,587.6 per 100,000 people and recorded 638 cases of Covid-19 while the Cork City North East local electoral area had a 14-day incidence rate of 1,567.5 per 100,000 people and recorded 661 cases of Covid-19.
The Midleton local electoral area, which includes Youghal, recorded an incidence rate of 1,465.6. And 666 cases of the virus were recorded there in the two weeks to December 6, an increase on the 611 cases recorded last week.
The Cork City South East local electoral area had a 14-day incidence of 1,428.2 per 100,000 and recorded 611 cases, while Macroom local electoral area had an incidence rate of 1,411.4 and recorded 520 cases.
The Fermoy local electoral area recorded 484 cases in the two-week period up to December 13 and an incidence rate of 1,329.5 per 100,000, while Carrigaline local electoral area recorded an incidence rate of 1,300.5 per 100,000 and 457 cases.
The Mallow local electoral area recorded a 14-day incidence rate of 1,193.5 and 348 cases.
The Cork City South Central local electoral area also recorded a 14-day incidence rate which was below the national average with an incidence of 1,003.4. It recorded 388 cases, a decrease in the 427 cases recorded last week.
There was a slight increase in both the 14-day incidence rate of the virus and cases recorded by the Kanturk local electoral area up to December 13 when compared to December 6.
An incidence rate of 938.4 per 100,000 population and 234 cases was recorded there, which is a rise of 13 cases.
The Skibbereen-West Cork local electoral area had a 14-day incidence rate at 799.2 with 242 cases, which represented a drop of 16 cases.
The Bantry-West Cork local electoral area had an incidence rate of 651.1 per 100,000 population with 146 cases, a slight decrease on the 158 cases recorded in there last week.
Over 60,000 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Cork since the beginning of the pandemic and 500 Covid-19 deaths have been reported here.