"It is likely" the omicron variant is already in Ireland
"I think it is likely at this point that we will be identifying cases here in the coming days."
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said "it is likely" the new Covid-19 omicron variant is already in Ireland and he expects to see confirmed cases soon.
Speaking on Today with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1, Donnelly said officials were focusing on the new variant but he believed Ireland will identify its first cases of the variant in the coming days.
"What we're tracking at the moment is several cases that have this so-called s-gene dropout and they're all being sent for genome sequencing which gives you the definitive answer," Donnelly said.
"But on the basis that delta is almost all the cases we've had here, any variance from that there's a reasonable assumption that it could be this new variant.
"So yes, I think it is likely at this point that we will be identifying cases here in the coming days."
The omicron variant, first identified by researchers in South Africa, has prompted widespread speculation that it may be more resistant to Covid-19 vaccines than existing variants, including delta.
Covid-19 vaccines work by training the immune system against the coronavirus spike protein, however, initial research suggests the omicron variant has over 30 mutations to this protein.
However, experts have been reluctant to say what this will mean for the efficacy of the current vaccines on the new variant given that much of the data is preliminary.
Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Paul Morgan, an immunologist at Cardiff University, said that while infection looks more likely with the omicron variant, he believes vaccines will still provide some protection.
“I think a blunting rather than a complete loss [of immunity] is the most likely outcome," he said.
This week, the World Health Organisation said the variant is likely to spread internationally and called on countries to accelerate the vaccination of high-priority groups.
"Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic," the WHO said.
"The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high."