THE OMICRON variant of Covid-19, first identified in Botswana and South Africa, is likely already in Ireland, according to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.
Speaking on Today with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1, the minister said a number of cases with markers of the variant have been identified and sent for further sequencing.
"What we're tracking here is several cases of this so-called S-gene drop out," he explained. "They're all being sent for genome sequencing which gives you the definitive answer.
"On the basis that Delta is almost all of the cases we've had here, with any variance from that, there's a reasonable assumption that it could be this new variant.
"I think it is likely at this point that we will be identifying cases here in the coming days," he said.
However, Minister Donnelly said that further restrictions to stop the spread of the virus are not currently on the cards for government.
The National Public Health Emergency Team is to also meet coalition leaders today to discuss the Omicron variant, as several countries are introduce travel bans from six African countries where the variant has been identified.
Following this meeting, a memo will be prepared for government on Tuesday with various recommendations to be discussed at cabinet.
Researchers in South Africa and around the world are currently conducting studies to better understand the Omicron variant, as it is not yet clear if it is more transmissible or causes more severe illness compared to the Delta variant.
Initial reported infections were among university students—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease—but understanding the level of severity of the variant will take days to several weeks.
Six cases of the variant have been identified in Scotland, alongside three in England.
Some of these cases have no known travel history, suggesting they could have been transmitted within the country.