Portuguese health authorities have identified 13 cases of the omicron coronavirus variant among members of a professional soccer club and were investigating whether it was one of the first reported cases of local transmission of the virus outside of southern Africa.
The Ricardo Jorge National Health Institute said that one of those who tested positive was a player from the Lisbon-based Belenenses SAD soccer club who had recently traveled to South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified.
The others, including players and other members of the club's staff, hadn't reportedly traveled to southern Africa, where most of the cases have been recorded so far.
The institute said that those who had been in contact with the positive cases were in isolation regardless of their vaccination status.
Players of Lisbon's biggest team, Benfica, which played Belenenses SAD on Saturday, were also being tested for the virus.
“Since this is a new variant, we have to tighten the controls,” Portugal's health general director, Graça Freitas told the local TSF radio.
Freitas said that some of the infected had no symptoms and that all were improving.
“Despite being vaccinated, we know that the vaccine is not 100% effective,” she told SIC Noticias news channel.
Health authorities, the clubs and Portugal's Primeira Liga were all facing questions for allowing the game to go ahead even when the Belenenses SAD had already reduced its squad to nine players — two fewer than the game calls for — because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Portuguese league called for an “urgent” meeting with health authorities to understand what happened and discuss changes in the current COVID-19 protocols for matches. It questioned why health officials failed to consider all Belenenses players to be at a high risk of contagion considering the possible presence of the omicron variant.
The referee suspended the game just after halftime, with Benfica leading 7-0, when only seven Belenenses SAD players took the field and the squad then lost another player.
Freitas said that health authorities don't decide over professional soccer games and that it was the clubs themselves who made the call.
Benfica said that its players were tested on Monday as they normally are every week and the results came back negative. It said the club hadn't received any requests to cancel Saturday's game and league protocols were followed.
Benfica's next scheduled match is the Primeira Liga derby against Sporting Lisbon on Friday.