The doctor who discovered the new variant of Covid-19 says Omicron appears to produce “extremely mild” symptoms and has accused countries of “panicking unnecessarily” by tightening restrictions.
There have been fears the highly-mutated new strain is more infectious than others as scientists scramble to learn more about it. It was reportedly first detected in Botswana last month.
However, Dr Angelique Coetzee, the first South African doctor to flag cases of Omicron, says there has been no indication it is any worse than Delta.
Omicron symptoms in first detected case
During an interview on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC, the chair of the South African Medical Association said she first spotted the variant in a male patient in his 30s who had “unusual” symptoms.
“He said to me that he's just [been] extremely tired for the past few days and he's got these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache,” she said.
The man had a “scratchy throat” rather than a sore throat and no cough or loss of smell and taste, Dr Coetzee added.
A rapid antigen test confirmed the patient was ill with Covid-19, as was the rest of his family, but all were suffering from “very, very mild symptoms”.
“For the rest of the day I saw more patients coming in with the same sort of symptoms,” Dr Coetzee told BBC, adding it prompted her to alert South Africa’s advisory committee for Covid vaccines.
“Listen, something is wrong, I have seen a picture that doesn’t fit in with Delta,” she told the experts.
The cases were later revealed to be Omicron.
Only mild cases at Omicron epicentre
Despite initial fears across the globe in the wake of the Delta strain, Dr Coetzee said she or her colleagues have not needed to omit anyone with Omicron to hospital.
“What we are seeing clinically in South Africa is — and remember I’m at the epicentre, that’s where I’m practicing — is extremely mild, for us that’s mild cases,” she told BBC.
When asked by host Andrew Marr if the UK, US and Europe were “panicking unnecessarily” by reimposing travel and mask restrictions following the discovery of Omicron cases, Dr Coetzee agreed.
“I think you already have it there in your country and you’re not knowing it, and I would say, yes, at this stage I would say definitely,” she said.
“Two weeks from now maybe we will say something different.”
WHO researching Omicron's transmissibility
The World Health Organization expects to have more information on the transmissibility of Omicron within days, its technical lead on Covid-19 Maria van Kerkhove said on Wednesday.
She said it was not yet known if Omicron is more infectious or makes people more ill.
Omicron is rapidly becoming the dominant variant of the coronavirus in South Africa just weeks after it was first detected.
The country's new confirmed cases rose to 8561 on Wednesday from 4373 a day earlier, according to official statistics.
On Tuesday, a senior Botswana health official said that 16 out of the total 19 cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant detected in the country were asymptomatic.
Pamela Smith-Lawrence, Acting Director of Health in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, told Reuters that the majority of the 19 people who were found to be infected with the new Omicron variant have already tested negative.
While 16 people were asymptomatic, the remaining three had “very, very mild” symptoms.
South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said early epidemiological data suggested Omicron was able to evade some immunity, but that existing vaccines should still protect against severe disease and death.
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