New Covid variant B.1.1.529 ‘undoubtedly a matter of concern’ says NI Chief Medical Officer as countries added to Red List

Evidence of a new variant of the COVID-19 virus is ‘a matter of concern’ which is being closely monitored, Northern Ireland Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride has said.

By Brendan McDaid
Saturday, 27th November 2021, 11:37 am

The new variant - B.1.1.529 - has been identified in South Africa as well as some other countries with travel links to South Africa.

Although there is limited evidence of the impact of the new variant, there are concerns that it has a large number of mutations, the Department of Health has said, adding that this ‘could potentially have implications for transmissibility, clinical impact and vaccine effectiveness’. Further analysis will be required in the coming weeks before any firm conclusions will be possible, officials added.

In response to the emerging evidence, the following countries will be placed on NI’s international travel Red List from 26 November 2021: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.

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Chief Medical Officer Professor Michael McBride pictured getting his booster vaccine this week. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

In addition, recent arrivals from these countries will be contacted by the Public Health Agency and asked to self-isolate and undertake PCR tests which will be prioritised for genomic sequencing.

Further assessments will be made of the other countries with strong travel links to South Africa.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride said: “This is undoubtedly a matter of concern. We are taking the action on international travel on a precautionary basis, while we await further evidence on the spread of this variant in South Africa and understand more about it.

“The need for further measures will be kept under constant review and we will continue to liaise closely with public health colleagues in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

“I would also urge the public to be cautious. All variants of the COVID-19 virus spread in the same way – through contact between people.

“The best way to keep each other safe is to keep following public health advice. That includes wearing a face covering, being careful about our contacts with others, and washing our hands. Fresh air and good ventilation also have a vital role in dispersing COVID-19 particles.

“It is not possible at this stage to accurately assess the potential for this new variant to impact on vaccine effectiveness. This should in no way dissuade people from coming forward for their first and second doses and boosters. The Delta variant is currently dominant in Northern Ireland and the threat it poses to our citizens is very real. Thankfully, our vaccines provide a good level of protection against Delta and continue to represent our strongest line of defence against the virus.”