It is “premature” to make concrete decisions around international travel due to the Delta Covid-19 variant, an immunologist at the University of Limerick has warned.
This follows confirmation the Delta variant now makes up 20% of cases across the country including a probable outbreak in Athlone which is being investigated by public health doctors in the Midlands. Dr Augustine Pereira, director of Public Health North East, said it is also investigating probable delta cases in Louth.
Dr Elizabeth Ryan, a lecturer in immunology at UL, said: “Through the whole pandemic, when we look to our neighbours, we are looking in a crystal ball to see our future.”
That is in reference to figures from the Office for National Statistics in the UK which now shows Delta as the dominant variant in England, though the trend for Northern Ireland is “uncertain”.
Dr Ryan said: “The way things have evolved in the UK over the last month with the expansion of Delta is very likely similar [to Ireland]. It is still relatively low here, but it is reasonable to expect a similar spread will happen here.”
Dr Ryan said caution should be taken with the next steps for opening up including indoor dining and international travel.
“It’s not time to relax just yet,” she said. “I think international travel could be premature. It depends on where the vaccine levels are. We have to be careful.”
She expects evidence on the spread of the virus generally will feed into those decisions.
Dr Ryan said indoor dining and international travel are “good ways of mixing people in close proximity “ and offer opportunities for transmission.
This variant is more transmissible than the Alpha or B.117 variant first identified in the UK, which is currently the most dominant strain here.
However, data from Public Health England published this week shows two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines provide protection against this new variant to the same level as against other variants.
Dr Ryan said: “There is really good evidence from the UK that the vaccines are protecting against hospitalisations with the Delta variant. People who are coming to hospital in the UK tend to be either not vaccinated or not fully vaccinated.”
She urged anyone who now eligible for a vaccine to take this up but added that in contrast to January when a new variant hit Ireland before the vaccination programme had started, we are in a stronger position now.
Vulnerable older people and most in the priority groups on the vaccine list are now at least partially vaccinated.
Dr Ryan said people in their 60s waiting on their second shot of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine should be offered this as soon as possible, as well as completing vaccines for any other vulnerable groups.
Dr Mary Favier, a GP in Cork and former president of the Irish College of General Practitioners also urged caution.
Speaking to RTÉ, she said deferring the easing of restrictions on indoor facilities for two to three weeks “could make all the difference”.