A health expert has said it is likely that that the coronavirus variant first detected in India will become a variant of concern.

Three cases of the B.1.617 variant have been reported in Ireland, with two associated with travel.

Scientists are concerned about variants that have key changes in the spike protein of the virus.

Mutations in a specific region of the spike protein may allow the virus to evade or partially evade the effectiveness of vaccines or natural immunity.

Assistant Professor of Virology at UCD Dr Gerald Barry said the mutations of the latest variant suggest that the virus will have higher transmissibility or potentially a higher ability to reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, he said there were ongoing studies looking at the ability of antibodies to neutralise the virus and to examine how it is moving through the populations of the UK and India.

He said the B.1.617 variant is interesting because it has a number of mutations causing changes in the spike protein and these changes have not been seen before.

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Dr Barry said the UK is being relied on for data because it has such in-depth sequencing compared to India where the level of sequencing is far lower than in UK or Ireland.

So far, 77 cases of the variant have been identified in the UK, where it is currently being investigated as a 'variant of investigation'.

Dr Barry also said it is inevitable that Covid-19 will continue to change and new variants will emerge as the virus "isn't in its perfect state yet' and has not reached its greatest potential to infect people.

The best way to stop Covid-19 becoming more virulent is to keep case numbers down, he said, because the virus will only change if it has the ability to infect more people.

Experts believe the current range of vaccines should offer some protection against variants and Pfizer has published research suggesting its jab could offer good protection against the variants first detected in Brazil and South Africa.

Early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine has some effectiveness against variants, while AstraZeneca has also said it hopes its vaccine will protect against severe disease from any variant.

The Director of National Virus Reference Laboratory has said it is not known if the B.1.617 variant increases hospitalisation or severe disease.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, Dr Cillian de de Gascun said it is too early to say if the variant is driving the rise of cases in India or if the country is simply caught up in a new wave.

He said he would be more concerned about variant first detected in South Africa as there are 55 cases so far in Ireland, with 24 of the variant first discovered in Brazil.

However, he said, the numbers are still really small, particularly in the context of around 1,000 sequences a week being carried out.

Dr De Gascun said there is currently no evidence to suggest that the B.1.617 variant will have an impact on vaccine effectiveness, but it is being monitored because of two amino acid changes in the spike protein.

He said these amino acid changes have been associated in some studies with a reduced susceptibility of the virus in neutralising antibodies.

Dr Margaret Harris from the World Health Organization said they are looking closely to see if it is the variant itself that is causing the spread of the virus in India, or if it is a result of mass gatherings at religious festivals recently.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, she said the WHO is particularly concerned about Covid outbreaks in India, which she said is "really driving the huge rises".

She said the good news is that where countries have been vaccinated, they are seeing a good and positive drop in the number of illnesses and the number of deaths in those age groups.

Yesterday, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the vast majority of cases in Ireland are the B117 variant, which was first detected in the UK.

"We know that AstraZeneca works very effectively against that variant, we don't know what new variants will arise and what impact they will have on any of the vaccines that we are using at the moment," he said.

"Just as we don't want new variants spreading or arising in this country because of their impact on AstraZeneca, equally we don't want any others impacting on any of the other vaccines."

Additional reporting PA