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A cardiologist from Israel has tested positive for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 after attending a medical conference in London, UK.

Elad Maor, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv, patient information guide coumadin posted on Twitter on November 30: “What a mess! Came back from a conference in London. With a mask and 3 Pfizer vaccines I managed to get Omicron.”

Maor traveled to London on November 19 to attend the PCR London Valves 2021 conference held at the ExCeL Centre November 21-23. He stayed four nights at a hotel in north London and took public transport to and from the ExCeL Centre in East London each day of the meeting. He returned to Israel on the evening of November 23.

Maor, 45, who has received three doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, had two PCR tests in the UK — on November 20 and 21 in line with travel requirements — and another PCR test upon arriving back in Israel in the early hours of November 24. All three tests were negative.

He began experiencing symptoms within days and tested positive on November 27. His symptoms have been mild so far, and he said he was feeling “better” at the time of his tweet on November 30.

Maor believes he was infected during his trip to London. “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 told The Guardian newspaper.

Although his wife accompanied him to London, neither she nor any of his 3 children have experienced symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19. But Maor believes he has passed the infection to a 69-year-old colleague in Israel who has since tested positive for the Omicron variant. The colleague, who has also received three vaccine doses, is understood to have mild symptoms at present.

The case suggests that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 may have been circulating in the UK earlier than previously thought.

Implications for In-person Conferences

It will also inevitably lead to questions about the safety of face-to-face conferences, which are only just starting to get underway again.

The PCR Valves 2021 meeting had more than 1250 on-site attendees as well as 2400 or more joining online, according to figures on its website. Maor said he did not have any issues with the conference organizers, who required proof of vaccination before entry. But he posted a photograph on his Twitter account of a crowded auditorium with many delegates not wearing masks.

The conference subsequently posted an announcement on its website alerting delegates that one of the attendees had tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to their home country. It reads: “Since the reported case comes less than a week after the end of PCR London valves, we want to inform you so that you may decide the best course of action, for yourself, if any.” It does not mention that the case was the Omicron variant. 

Patrick Jolly, strategic and market development director of the conference, commented to theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology: “As you may imagine, the health, safety and well-being 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 center 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.”

Jolly also noted: “To date — more than 9 days after the end of PCR London Valves — we have had no report of any other case of participants testing positive who attended PCR London Valves.”

He said the EuroPCR organization believes that medical conferences are safe to be held in person.

“With the above sanitary requirements and protocols, and no complacency in their enforcement, we believe strongly that medical conferences can take place, as the benefits of in-person medical conferences are obvious for the concerned medical communities,” Jolly added.  

But what about other meetings happening imminently and planning in-person attendance?

Eileen Murray, executive director of the American Epilepsy Society (AES), whose annual 5-day meeting starts today at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology that the health, safety, and well-being of everyone attending is a priority.

“Vaccinations are required, with no exceptions, to anyone attending the in-person event,” Murray said. “AES is using the CLEAR HealthPass to verify identity and vaccination status for our attendees. No one who cannot verify identity and vaccination requirement will be permitted to attend the in-person event.”

She noted that masks will also be required except in limited circumstances when actively eating or drinking, or for a faculty member when actively presenting at a lecture or panel. “Anyone not adhering to the mask policy will be asked to leave the meeting and will be denied readmission to the meeting with no refund,” she said.

“These guidelines were developed in accordance with the latest public health guidance and AES will continue to follow that guidance as any updates are made with the emergence of the Omicron variant,” Murray added.

Also commenting on this issue for theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, which has its large annual international stroke meeting planned for in-person attendance in New Orleans in February, said: “As we have throughout the pandemic, the American Heart Association is closely monitoring conditions and following the guidance of the CDC as well as state and local health departments related to all in-person meetings.”

“Our upcoming International Stroke Conference, February 9-11, is planned as an in-person and digital experience which allows us the ultimate flexibility to address changing pandemic conditions. The health, safety, and well-being of our volunteers, members, and attendees from around the world remains our number-one priority,” the AHA spokesperson added.

But some COVID-19 experts are taking a more cautious view.  

Rowland Kao, PhD, an expert in infectious disease dynamics at the University of Edinburgh, UK, expressed concern about such large in-person conferences.  

“We know that the Omicron variant appears to be spreading rapidly, with a recent preprint also telling us that the reinfection rate appears to be higher in South Africa. Should this be borne out, then the evidence would support that our reliance on a combination of vaccine-induced and natural immunity may be compromised by the Omicron variant,” he commented to theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.

“We already know that extended contact indoors provides an additional risk, and so large meetings of this type have the potential to create extended risks. Until we know the extent to which Omicron causes severe illness, we should be extra cautious about these high-risk settings,” Kao commented.

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