There is currently no evidence to suggest that Covid-19 vaccines will not work against the Omicron variant, a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has said.
Dr Cillian de Gascun said there is no reason to believe “at this stage” that vaccines will not be effective against the new variant of the virus or that anti-viral medicines will not work against it.
However, The Irish Times reports that Dr de Gascun said there was reason for concern because the variant “might have an impact on an antibody response and it contains other mutations that have not been seen before”.
“Because it is so far removed from the original virus there could be more infections and have an impact on those who have been vaccinated,” he said.
The Omicron variant has been designated the fifth coronavirus variant of concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with early evidence suggesting it has an increased re-infection risk.
Dr de Gascun said the number of people being infected by Omicron has risen sharply in recent days in South Africa, but from a low base. He said it had “taken off” in a country with a very low level of infections compared with Ireland.
Dr de Gascun, the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory in UCD, said there is no evidence at present that the new variant is widespread in Europe.
“It’s been all Delta for the last six months across the world. Nothing has come to displace Delta at this stage because it is the most transmissible and that would be normal for viruses,” he told RTÉ Radio One’s Brendan O’Connor Show.
“There is no indication that [Omicron] is widespread in Europe. There are small numbers at present. We are not seeing any evidence for it at this point.”
Dr de Gascun said he did not anticipate travel restrictions over the Christmas period in Europe, adding a pre-travel PCR or a post-arrival PCR test could facilitate continued movement.
He added that the emergence of the Omicron variant underlined the importance of rolling out Covid vaccines globally.
It comes as a scientist behind the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine expressed optimism that existing vaccines will be effective against the new Omicron variant.
Professor Andrew Pollard, who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said it is “extremely unlikely” the variant will cause a “reboot” of the pandemic in highly-vaccinated populations.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that most of the mutations in Omicron are in similar regions seen in other variants, adding: “That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.
“At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.
“It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.”
Numerous pharmaceutical firms have said they are working to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron, after the WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains.