There is a "reason to be concerned" about the Covid-19 variant Omicron, the Director of UCD's National Virus Reference Laboratory has said.

Dr Cillian De Gascun added that there are still a lot of unknowns about the new variant.

It could take two to three weeks for the publication of "hard scientific evidence" on Omicron, which the World Health Organization has termed a "variant of concern", he said.

Speaking on RTÉ's Brendan O'Connor programme, the member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) highlighted the importance of countries sharing data on new variants to prevent widespread transmission.

There should be a recognition of what South African authorities have done by sharing information on Omicron, at this early stage, he added.

Omicron is considerably "more divergent than any other variants" to date with more amino acid changes across the genome than in other variants, Dr De Gascun said.

"It might have an impact on an antibody response and it contains other mutations that have not been seen before."

"Because it is so far removed from the original virus there could be more infections and have an impact on those who have been vaccinated."

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Dr De Gascun noted, however, that vaccines will still be effective and there is no reason to believe the vaccine would not be effective against Omicron.

"We know vaccines still protect against severe disease," he said.

He speculated that a super spreader event may have led to this new variant getting into the community in South Africa very quickly.

Focus has remained on the Delta variant over the past six months, Dr De Gascun said, "with sub-lineages of it emerging over the last few months".

"Nothing has come to displace Delta."

Variant must be studied carefully - McConkey

An Infectious Disease Specialist has said the new variant has to be studied carefully to see its impact.

"We don't have clear answers on that yet," Professor Sam McConkey said.

Speaking on the Saturday programme on RTÉ Radio 1, he said Ormicon seems to the dominant variant in and around Johnannesburg, but it will be a week or two before they will have the data to know more about it.

He said it is likely Ireland will end up with this variant and said "thorough testing" is important among those returning from affected countries.

When faced with a new threat like there, there needs to be a robust system so people who are returning from affected areas are not spreading it, Prof McConkey said.

However, he does not support the idea of closing borders completely.

He said the threat of this new variant is based on genetic sequencing and protein sequence.