A festive evening in Oslo turned into a probable focus of infection with the Omicron variant, heightening fears over its high transmissibility and resistance to vaccines.
It all started with a company party on November 26 in the Norwegian capital: at the invitation of solar energy producer Scatec, some 120 people, including one recently returned from South Africa, gathered at the Louise restaurant to celebrate. Christmas before its time.
“All had been vaccinated, none showed symptoms and they had all carried out a self-test” before the meal, an official of the municipal health authorities, Tine Ravlo, told AFP on Friday. “Everything had been done in order and no rule was broken,” she said.
However, a week later, the atmosphere is no longer at the party: 64 guests, or a large half of the participants, have tested positive for Covid, a case of Omicron is so far confirmed and 17 others are suspected.
Still provisional, these numbers are likely to increase as testing analyzes progress.
Among the infected guests, none have so far developed a severe form of the disease, most showing mild symptoms in the form of headaches, inflammation of the throat and cough, according to Ms Ravlo.
Biggest known household in Europe?
It could be the largest outbreak known to date of the Omicron variant in Europe, or even in the world. According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the number of known cases of people infected with this variant in countries of the European Economic Area (European Union plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) was 79 on Thursday.
Following the appearance of this suspected outbreak of the Omicron variant, the Norwegian government on Thursday announced a series of health restrictions in Oslo and its region.
Norwegian Minister of Health Ingvild Kjerkol then described the situation as “worrying”. “This indicates that the virus infects very easily and that the vaccine does not protect well against contamination. We hope and believe that the vaccine protects against severe forms of the disease but it is not known to what extent,” she said .
Since midnight, wearing a mask – until then only recommended nationally – has been compulsory in and around Oslo on public transport, taxis, malls and shops where distancing is not possible.
Telecommuting has also become the rule where possible, the number of people in private indoor events is capped at 100, and patrons of bars and restaurants must register with alcohol to be served seated.
Vaccine dams in danger
Christmas meals generally very watered and dear to Norwegians, the “julebord” – like the one suspected of having led to the new source of infection – are not prohibited but several institutions and companies have canceled theirs.
While it is too early to draw conclusions from the Oslo episode, the apparently high transmissibility of the Omicron variant worries specialists.
“What we see is that Omicron is spreading very quickly and very widely, despite vaccination. It is appalling information in the course of this pandemic”, explains the French epidemiologist Antoine Flahault Even in a Europe where people are quite widely vaccinated – 88% of the adult population is in Norway -, “this may raise concerns that the vaccine dams against the progression of the new variant, may not hold,” he said.
The Norwegian “julebord” in question “is a typical event of superpropagation”, underlines Antoine Flahault. “This generates significant risks, known since the start of the pandemic, and they should unfortunately be banned in the midst of an epidemic wave.”