It is likely that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, first detected in South Africa at the end of November, has been present in Belgium for longer than first known.
A total of nine cases in Belgium have been officially linked to the new variant, which has so far been detected in 38 countries and has led many states to toughen travel restrictions. However, it is now being investigated whether a teenager who tested positive with the virus a few weeks ago may have been infected with the strain.
“The story is being slightly overblown in the media at the moment. It is true that we have an infection that could be linked to the variant, it has not yet been confirmed, but is very likely that it will be the Omicron variant,” Joris Moonens, a spokesperson for the Agency for Care and Health, told The Brussels Times.
The agency confirmed that the infection of the pupil at a school in Melle who tested positive two weeks ago was being re-investigated after one of the parents tested positive with the Omicron variant.
“Neither that pupil nor the family had travelled recently, so the thought is that the pupil contracted it here in Belgium, perhaps at the school itself.” This would mean that the strain was already circulating in Belgium earlier than was previously thought.
The school was not aware of the Omicron variant circulating among pupils but had already decided to close its doors amid rising infections, according to reports from De Standaard.
In the Netherlands, where the Omicron variant was detected in 14 of the 61 people who tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving from South Africa just after the variant had been reported, it was confirmed the variant has already spread within the borders of the Netherlands after an infection was linked to the variant in a person who had not recently travelled.
To date, a total of 182 confirmed cases in 17 EU countries have been linked to the new variant. Most of these were linked to travel to countries in Africa, according to the latest update from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
However, several countries (including Belgium, Germany, Spain) detected cases without an epidemiological link to areas where community transmission of the Omicron variant is documented or presumed. ‘This indicates that undetected community transmission could be ongoing in these countries,’ the ECDC believes.
One of the clusters of Omicron infections in Belgium is linked to the Belgian water polo team, with several players becoming infected in the Czech Republic during a visit for a match in mid-November.
Virologist Steven Van Gucht stressed that it is normal at this point that new variants are being discovered in new places. He added that the strain can be detected by a classic PCR test, meaning that it would be obvious if its circulation was as wide-spread as is now feared.
So far, according to the ECDC, all cases for which there is available data on the severity of the infection were either asymptomatic or mild. ‘No deaths have been reported among these cases so far.’