A doctor who was one of the first people in the world to become infected with the Omicron variant says he believes he caught the virus when he was in London for a major medical conference attended by more than 1,200 health professionals.
The disclosure from Elad Maor will raise fears that the variant may have been in the UK much earlier than previously realised – and that other medics could have been exposed to it too.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Maor, a cardiologist at Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv, described how he returned to Israel on 23 November after the three-day meeting at ExCeL London, a large convention centre in Newham, east London. He began experiencing symptoms within days, and tested positive on 27 November.
The time from exposure to symptom onset (known as the incubation period) is thought to be up to 14 days, though symptoms typically appear within five days of exposure.
The 45-year-old, a father of three and an associate professor of cardiology at Tel Aviv University, arrived in London on 19 November and stayed four nights at a hotel in Islington, north London. Maor has so far shown mild Covid-19 symptoms, including a fever, muscle ache and a sore throat.
Speaking to the Guardian from his home in Israel, where he is self-isolating, Maor also said he had probably infected a 69-year-old colleague with the virus after flying back from London. The colleague has since tested positive for the Omicron variant.
While he cannot be certain how or when he became infected, Maor, who had received three doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, is convinced it occurred in the UK. “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 revelation will raise fresh questions about how early the new variant may have been present in the UK and Europe. Governments around the world are urgently scouring databases for recent cases of Covid infections, screening travellers and decoding the viral genomes of the new variant as they try to measure how far it has spread and where it originated.
Data shows it was circulating before it was officially identified in southern Africa last week and it has since been detected in more than a dozen countries. Work to establish if it is more infectious, more deadly or can evade vaccines will take weeks.
Maor said he had nothing but praise for the organisers of the PCR London Valves 2021 conference, who asked for proof of vaccination before allowing entry to ExCeL London. However, pictures of the meeting taken by Maor and reviewed by the Guardian show not everyone was wearing masks. The conference was attended by 1,250 people in person and a further 2,400 watched online.
The doctor, who travelled to the conference in east London using the tube and Docklands Light Railway each day, noticed similar behaviour on public transport. “Many of the people on the tube were not wearing masks,” he said. “I was actually surprised by that.”
He undertook a PCR test on 20 November – his second day in the UK – and again on 21 November – the first day of the medical conference – as per UK and Israeli travel rules. After attending the final day on 23 November, he flew from London via Heathrow airport at 9pm. Upon arrival at Tel Aviv in the early hours of 24 November, he had a third PCR test – which also came back negative.
“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.”
Having initially tested negative for Covid-19 when returning to Israel, he returned to work at the Sheba Medical Centre before developing symptoms, and a fourth PCR test said he was positive. Maor has since been told he is the third confirmed Omicron case in Israel, and the first in the country with no travel links to southern Africa.
Maor said it “feels weird” to be one of the first people in the world to become infected with the Omicron variant. “As a physician I am not used to being under the spotlight.”
Although his wife accompanied him to London, neither she nor any of his children have experienced symptoms or tested positive for Covid-19. “That’s reassuring, I think,” he said. “I think the transmissibility of this [variant] is not completely different or extremely different to what I know about Delta.”
Maor urged people to get vaccinated and to have a booster jab if eligible. “I can’t emphasise the importance of that enough,” he said. “Things could have ended much worse for my family and friends – I am sure that my disease could have been worse if not for the vaccine.”
The Europa Group, which is based in Toulouse and organised the PCR London Valves 2021 conference at ExCeL London, posted a message on its official conference website confirming it had learned on 30 November that a delegate had tested positive for Covid after returning to their home country.
Speaking from France, a spokesperson for the Europa Group said: “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.”
Israel shut its borders to foreigners from all countries for 14 days on Saturday to try to contain the spread of Omicron and has reintroduced counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to trace contacts of a handful of people who have likely been infected. The UK has added 10 countries to its travel “red list”.