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Omicron: Israeli doctor says he caught Covid-19 variant while in London

Cardiologist Elad Maor tells The Guardian he tested positive for Omicron variant after returning home from a medical conference in the UK
Travellers leave Ben Gurion International Airport
Travellers leave Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, as Israel imposes new Covid-19 restrictions on 28 November 2021 (Reuters)

An Israeli doctor who was one of the first people in the world to become infected with the Omicron variant of Covid-19 says he believes he caught the virus while he was in the UK for a major medical conference attended by more than 1,200 health professionals.

In an interview with The Guardian on Wednesday, Elad Maor, a cardiologist at the Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv, said he returned to Israel on 23 November after the three-day PCR London Valves 2021 conference at ExCeL London, a large convention centre in Newham, east London.

Maor took two PCR tests while in the UK, and one when he returned to Israel, but all three had come back negative. He then began experiencing symptoms and, on 27 November, took a fourth test which came back positive for the variant.

"I got the Omicron in London, for sure," he said. "That is interesting because that was 10 days ago in London - really, really early."

"The only reasonable explanation is that I got infected on the last day of the meeting - maybe at the airport, maybe at the meeting," he said. "That’s why the [third] PCR was too early to detect the infection. So either the second day of the meeting or the last day of the meeting because there is a lag between the time you get infected and when the PCR turns positive."

Maor, who has received three doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, added that he had probably also infected a 69-year-old colleague with the variant after returning to Israel. That colleague has since tested positive for the Omicron variant, according to the newspaper.

He has been told he is the third confirmed Omicron case in Israel, and the first in the country with no travel links to countries in southern Africa. His wife and children, however, have not tested positive for Covid-19, to which he said "that's reassuring, I think".

Conference host responds

The Europa Group, which organised the London conference, posted a message on its website confirming an attendee had tested positive for Covid after returning to their home country.

Patrick Jolly, marketing director for the Europa Group, told Middle East Eye: "As you may imagine, the health, safety and wellbeing of everyone who visited PCR London Valves was our number one priority.

"All protocols mandated by the UK government were put in place. Anyone entering the congress centre had to present a valid health pass and were requested to wear a mask. Hydro-alcoholic gel and masks were made readily available for all participants and disposal bins for used protective equipment were provided."

'All protocols mandated by the UK government were put in place. Anyone entering the congress centre had to present a valid health pass and were requested to wear a mask'

- Patrick Jolly, Europa Group

The disclosure raises questions and possible fears that the coronavirus variant may have been present in the UK much earlier than previously realised.

The new variant, which was circulating before it was officially identified in southern Africa last week, has been detected in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The UK has added 10 countries to its travel "red list".

OmanQatarEgyptIranSaudi Arabia; the United Arab EmiratesBahrainMoroccoKuwait; and Jordan are, meanwhile, among the Middle Eastern countries that announced bans on some travellers from several African nations after reports of the new variant.

Israel closed its borders to foreigners from all countries for 14 days on Saturday. It has also reintroduced a measure that gives Israel's internal intelligence agency overarching power to monitor and track phones to tackle the spread of the virus.