The new variant of Covid-19, Omicron, may already be in Ireland, just it has not yet been found due to lack of genetic sequencing, according to a leading health expert.
Anthony Staines, Professor of Health Systems at Dublin City University (DCU), believes the lack of such tracing in Ireland means cases of the variant may be going unnoticed.
His comments come as the Department of Health confirmed 3,735 new cases of the virus on Sunday. As of 8am this morning, there were 566 patients with Covid in hospital, 117 of whom were in ICU.
The @hpscireland has today been notified of 3,735* confirmed cases of #COVID19.
As of 8am today, 566 COVID-19 patients are hospitalised, of which 117 are in ICU.
*Daily case numbers may change due to future data validation
— Department of Health (@roinnslainte) November 28, 2021
The variant has since been found in Germany, Italy and the UK. Throughout the pandemic, the UK has been of particular interest to public health experts here, due to our proximity and the high level of travel between the islands.
Speaking to Newstalk, Prof Staines said more genetic sequencing needs to be done to confirm whether the variant has reached Ireland and, in turn, help suppress its spread.
"It's probably here already," he said, adding: "We don't have a very substantial genetic sequencing programme in Ireland - we are sequencing around 10 per cent of our cases, which is not really enough to be confident about whether it's here or not."
Despite global concern regarding the variant's potential increased transmissibility and immunity resistance, Prof Staines said: "I think it's not time to panic about Omicron yet."
"We don't know exactly how it's going to play out," he added.
We won’t know the real impact of this for a number of weeks
However, despite Prof Staines' reservations regarding Ireland's genetic sequencing, Minister for the Environmental Eamon Ryan has reiterated that no case of the Omicron variant has so far been detected here.
“We won’t know the real impact of this for a number of weeks; it will take two or three weeks to see does it increase transmissibility, does it increase illness or can it get round vaccines,” he told RTÉ’s The Week In Politics programme.
“It means that while we’re waiting for that scientific evidence that we double down to tackle the Delta variant … that hasn’t gone away, there are still 5,000 people a day getting infected in our country, so it shouldn’t distract from doing the basic things that we have been doing well to get those numbers down.”
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) are meeting throughout this weekend to monitor the impact of Omicron, considering further measures to "mitigate" its arrival in Ireland.
Work is also underway to prepare legislation which would facilitate the reintroduction of the mandatory hotel quarantine system.