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What you need to know about new Covid variant in Ireland as winter cases expected to surge – and symptoms to watch for

A NEW subvariant of COVID-19 is expected to cause a surge of infections this winter – here’s everything you need to know.

Omicron subvariant BA.5 has been the dominant strain of Covid in Ireland since the start of summer but new subvariant BQ.1 is quickly surpassing it with infections on the rise.

Where did it come from and is it in Ireland?

The subvariant has derived from the omicron family and is a descendant of BA.5.

The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) is warning people of this new subvariant as it is better at surpassing vaccine protection.

Omicron was capable of spreading faster than its predecessor Delta and has mutated into different subvariants since it first appeared.

It circulated first as BA.1, then BA.2 and then BA.4 and BA.5 and now BQ.1 is picking up pace.

BQ.1 is showing a growth advantage over BA.5 and it has already increasingly begun circulation across Europe.

The ECDC said BQ.1 and its cousin BQ.1.1 are already present at significant levels in European countries.

Since mid October the variant accounted for seven per cent of cases sampled here in Ireland and it is expected to spread more rapidly as we continue to move into the winter months.

How dangerous is this new subvariant?

The omicron strain has shown that it is less likely to cause more serious illness than previous strains as it does not attack the lungs in the same way, but those without a vaccination are more at risk of serious illness.

Will antivirals still work?

There are antivirals that have been produced to combat serious illness caused by Covid -19.

This drug is called Paxlovid and the ECDC said there is no evidence of resistance from BQ.1 to this antiviral for now.

Will vaccines protect against BQ.1?

The level of protection from vaccinations against the new subvariant is unclear.

Mutations in a virus is what weakens the effectiveness of a vaccine, however, because BQ.1 is a subvariant of omicron vaccinations will provide some level of protection against it.

How bad will Covid be this winter?

It is uncertain as to how big the Covid surge will be this winter.

The ECDC said that the impact of Covid this winter will be determined by a number of factors including the timing of a vaccine rollout.

They highlighted that the timing of vaccination is more important than which booster is administered.

They said that for vaccinations to have the best impact they should be administered at the start of a Covid surge.

They also highlighted the importance of hand washing, social distancing and wearing face masks to combat the impact of Covid this winter.

Is BA.1 responsible for high numbers of Covid infections right now?

The next two weeks will paint a clearer picture on the current impact of BQ.1, it is currently unclear if the subvariant is responsible for a surge in cases.

Currently there are 472 patients in hospital with Covid up from 442 on Friday, but that could be due to weekend delays in discharge.

19 patients are in intensive care up from 16 on Friday.

The positivity rate for PCR tests remains at a stable 13.3 per cent.

What else should people be aware of ahead of this winter

THE HSE has said that it is possible that Ireland could be hit by a ‘twindemic’ of Covid-19 and flu this winter.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly admitted that he is ”concerned” about what is coming down the road.

Donnelly said officials are monitoring countries like Australia and New Zealand for any trends this year.

The Minister said Australia has had a particularly bad flu season this year with the rates “several times higher than the average they’ve had over the last number of years”.

He told RTE: “What that would mean for us is a lot more people in hospital, and unfortunately as well, a lot of people die whenever there’s a severe flu season.”

Donnelly said the HSE’s projections for winter are “very sobering”.