Scientists carrying out urgent tests for Omicron variant in Northern Ireland

Scientists are carrying out urgent testing on samples from positive PCR tests in Northern Ireland which could potentially have the new Covid-19 variant present.

No cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in Northern Ireland yet but the Health Minister has warned it is “highly likely” that this position will change in the coming days.

With the help of the genome sequencing being carried out at the laboratory in Belfast, any cases of the variant can be identified which will help prevent its spread.

Different variants of the virus can be picked up through the process which identifies the genetic makeup of the Covid-19 virus.

"There are some ones that have been identified as having a greater potential so we want to try and get those through as quickly as possible," Dr David Simpson from the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, explained.

“Every day here we sequence about 200 of the positive samples from Northern Ireland, looking to see what variants they are, so at the moment they are mostly the Delta variant. We also have a couple of samples that potentially carrying the Omicron variant, we are sequencing those along with the others at the moment."

It can take up to seven days to monitor a variant, but the process can be sped up if there is an urgency - like there is with this new variant.

Dr Simpson continued: "As the pandemic goes on the virus is continually evolving, so with the Delta variant, for example, we do see just individual letters changing, and there are slight variants in the Delta.

"The thing about the Omicron that's different is that it has multiple changes, across different parts of its genome, particularly its S-gene, multiple of these mutations or sequence changes have occurred so whenever we get the full sequence, we can compare it with the previous ones and we'll see these lots of differences and it will tell us clearly whether it is the omicron or not."

On Tuesday morning there were another 1,585 cases of the virus recorded. There were 341 Covid-positive patients in hospital, of whom 29 were in intensive care. Two further deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 were also reported.

3,030,662 vaccines have been administered in total.

Given the high number of mutations found in Omicron there has been speculation over the effectiveness of current vaccines.

However more vaccination clinics have had to be opened to meet demand for first and second jabs and the booster. The booster programme has now been opened to all adults over 18.

In the laboratory, it is now a waiting game to see if Omicron is in fact present.

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