MADRID (Reuters) – Health authorities in the Spanish region of Catalonia said on Wednesday they had detected potential traces of the Omicron coronavirus variant in sewage samples from late November.
If confirmed, it would mean the variant was present in Catalonia before or at the same time it was first reported in southern Africa a week ago.
Scientists fear the heavily mutated variant could resist vaccines and prolong the nearly two-year-old COVID-19 pandemic.
Spain has detected two cases of the variant and expects to confirm another two by the end of the week, but all are in people who had visited countries where Omicron has been found.
“At the moment what we have are signs. In some areas of Catalonia there are some samples with specific mutations linked to this variant,” regional public health chief Carmen Cabezas told a news conference.
She added that they could be also compatible with the Alpha variant.
PCR genetic sequencing tests will determine if Omicron, whose presence in southern Africa was announced on Nov. 25, was already circulating in Catalonia at that time.
Dutch health officials said on Tuesday the variant had been detected in the Netherlands on Nov. 19, before two flights arrived from South Africa carrying the virus.
(Reporting by Emma Pinedo; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jeruselem; Editing by Nathan Allen and Kevin Liffey)