A new, more transmissible strain of the Omicron coronavirus variant has been confirmed in the North and is likely to be now circulating in the Republic, an immunologist has said.
Prof Kingston Mills, professor of experimental immunology at Trinity College Dublin, said Omicron XE is a combination of the existing Omicron BA.1 and BA.2 strains.
The UK has confirmed more than 1,200 cases of Omicron XE to date. Just one case has been confirmed in the Republic while Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency announced on Monday there have been cases, but less than five to date.
Prof Mills said that, though the XE variant may not be any more severe than BA.2 or Omicron, it still poses a threat to older and vulnerable people, particularly those who are unvaccinated.
He said countries such as India, where over 6 million new cases have been recorded so far this month, have seen several new variants emerge.
"I am not trying to scaremonger, but we need to be prepared if we do see a variant that completely evades immunity with the vaccines — that's the big concern," he told RTÉ's Morning Ireland.
"The current vaccines prevent severe disease with Omicron, BA.2, and probably this new XE as well, but if we got another variant that completely evaded it, we'd be back to square one."
There was a slight rise in hospitalisations with Covid-19 overnight with numbers increasing from 735 to 742, but the trend remains downwards. The number in intensive care units increased by three from 45 to 48.
The last daily figures were on Thursday when there were a total of 4,195 confirmed cases (1,936 PCR/2,259 antigen-tests) and the overall number of cases was 1,498,834.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is continuing to monitor XE but has not yet deemed it a variant of concern or interest.
Its early estimates suggested XE had a growth rate of 10 per cent compared with BA.2, however the finding required “further confirmation”.