Omicron case without known travel connection found in England

At least one case of the Omicron coronavirus variant has been detected in the UK, which is not related to travel, according to people with knowledge of the case, providing further evidence of societal transmission in the UK.

The Scottish Government said earlier this week that nine cases had been linked to a single private event with no known travel link.

Officials have so far not been able to link the English affair with any travel history related to southern Africa, where the tribe was first discovered, either directly or through contact with another traveler, the people said.

Meanwhile, dozens of new Omicron sequences were evaluated by health officials, suggesting the number of cases will increase in the coming days. The UK has severely limited travel to and from 10 countries in southern Africa.

The UK Health Security Agency on Thursday confirmed a further seven cases in the UK, bringing the total number of Omicron cases reported so far to 29. In Scotland, health officials have found 13 infections caused by the new variant. The UKHSA did not respond to a request for comment on the case of community transmission in the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s prime minister, said on Tuesday that what was known about the first cluster of nine Omicron cases in the country indicated that there was already “limited” community transfer of the variant.

The World Health Organization last week identified the variant as a “concern” following a sharp rise in Omicron cases in South Africa. It said Wednesday it had been detected in at least 23 countries, adding that it expected the number to rise.

Researchers are concerned about the variant and fear that its high number of mutations may allow it to spread faster than the current dominant Delta variant and bypass immune protection from vaccines or previous infection. Studies are underway to understand this. It is also not yet known whether Omicron alters the severity of Covid-19 infection.

A person with knowledge of the English cases added that it had been difficult to track contacts in certain cases as some of those whose Omicron infection had been confirmed left the country shortly after, while some also ignored isolation.

Separate test data, analyzed by government science advisers, have provided an early indication that Omicron may be more prevalent in the UK.

Due to a genetic peculiarity, Omicron can be detected by a specific type of PCR test, which is used in about half of the Community tests performed.

Omicron does not have one of the three coronavirus gene targets – the S gene – analyzed by commercial detection kits, giving epidemiologists an insight into its spread without the need for genomic sequencing.

Surveillance data in the UK showed that the proportion of Covid-19 cases with an S gene dropout jumped from a background level of 0.06 per cent between August and October to around 0.3 per cent on 28 November.

However, health authorities are wary of over-interpreting the recent increase because suspected Omicron cases may preferentially be submitted for S-gene testing.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said the signal had proved “extremely useful” in showing an increase in Omicron cases in South Africa.

“In South Africa, they are now capturing many more cases without an S gene since Omicron was first discovered,” Woolhouse said. “From their experience, we will associate this pattern with an increase in Omicron.”

The alpha variant, which was dominant in the UK until mid-May, also had the same genetic distinctive character.

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