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More than 890,000 people still yet to get first booster as new variants threaten fresh Covid surge

Damien McCallion, head of the HSE's vaccine roll-out programme. Photo: Gareth Chaney

Eilish O'Regan

More than 890,000 people here have still not availed of a first Covid-19 booster shot as disease experts warn another potential virus surge is imminent.

Ireland and the rest of Europe are at risk of a “significant increase in Covid-19 in the coming weeks and months” with a rise in hospitalisations after new off-shoots of Omicron were declared ­variants of concern yesterday.

The new variants of concern are BA.4 and BA.5, which were first detected in South Africa in January and February and caused another surge in infection. They had become the dominant variants there, the European Centre for Disease Control said.

Figures obtained by the Irish Independent show a marked slowdown in vaccine uptake here, with almost 894,000 people eligible for a first booster shot yet to avail of the jab.

And although around 92,000 of the more than 750,000 over-65s and people who are immuno-compromised who were offered a second booster have had the shot, it means more than 650,000 have still to get the jab.

Damien McCallion, head of the HSE’s roll-out said take-up of the first booster was very high in the oldest age groups but lower in younger people.

He said it was important to avail of a first or second booster to maintain protection from getting seriously ill.

The BA.2 is still dominant in Ireland and cases are falling with the positivity rate for PCR tests at 14.6pc. There were 28 Covid-19 patients in intensive care yesterday.

Hospitals that faced major disruption for months are trying to increase non-Covid care and tackle waiting lists but another uptick in cases would set them back.

The new variants are due to become dominant in Portugal, a popular holiday destination with people from Ireland, at the end of this month.

The watchdog warned the presence of these variants “could cause a significant overall increase in Covid-19 cases in the EU/EEA in the coming weeks”.

Both BA.4 and BA.5 are more transmissible than BA.2 but not more severe, according to current evidence.

“There is an increasing trend in the variant proportions for BA.5 observed in Portugal in recent weeks, accompanied by an increase in Covid-19 case numbers and test positivity rate.”

The Portuguese National Institute of Health estimated that BA.5 already accounted for 37pc of the positive cases as of May 8. The estimated daily growth advantage for BA.5 over BA.2 is 13pc, which is similar to the 12pc daily growth advantage previously reported by South Africa.

Assuming such growth rate, BA.5 will be the dominant ­variant in Portugal by May 22.

The currently observed growth advantage for BA.4 and BA.5 is likely to be due to their ability to evade immune protection induced by prior infection and/or vaccination, particularly if this has waned over time.

Limited available data from in-vitro studies, evaluating sera from unvaccinated individuals who have experienced a prior BA.1 infection, indicate that both BA.4 and BA.5 are capable of escaping immune protection induced by infection with BA.1.

Unvaccinated people were unlikely to be protected against symptomatic infection with BA.4 or BA.5, the watchdog said.

Protection derived from currently available vaccines wanes over time against the Omicron variant.

There is currently no indication of any change in severity for BA.4 and BA.5 compared to previous Omicron lineages.

“Taken together, this indicates that the presence of these variants could cause a significant overall increase in Covid-19 cases in the EU/EEA in the coming weeks and months,” it said.

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