A new COVID variant — omicron — has sparked global concerns and travel restrictions for several countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced last week that omicron has been classified as a “variant of concern.” Experts have since been trying to find answers to many questions being asked, including if the omicron variant causes more severe illness and whether Covid vaccines will stop it.
Amid these concerns, the South African doctor who raised the alarm over the new strain has told BBC that Covid symptoms linked to the new omicron variant seem “extremely mild” so far. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who is also chair of the South African Medical Association, said she began to see patients around November 18 who came with “unusual symptoms” that were slightly different from those associated with the delta variant, which remains the most virulent strain of the virus.
“It actually started with a male patient who’s around the age of 33, and 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,” Coetzee told the BBC on Sunday.
She said the patient did not have a sore throat, but more of a “scratchy throat”. There was no cough or loss of taste or smell, which are known symptoms in patients infected with other strains.
Coetzee said after testing the male patient for Covid, he was positive. His family was also positive. More patients arrived that day with the same kind of symptoms, Coetzee said. She, therefore, alerted South Africa’s vaccine advisory committee.
She said other patients who had come to her so far with the omicron variant had also experienced “extremely mild” symptoms. Her colleagues have seen similar symptoms, she said.
“What we are seeing clinically in South Africa — and remember I’m at the epicenter of this where I’m practicing — is extremely mild, for us [these are] mild cases. We haven’t admitted anyone.”
Still, experts are worried about omicron’s large number of mutations. The WHO has said that its preliminary evidence suggests the strain has an increased risk of reinfection. Experts are also worried that omicron, known by the technical term B.1.1.529, seems to have really spread rather rapidly in South Africa, even though the numbers are relatively small.
There are further concerns over its ability to infect people who have recovered from infection and even people who have been vaccinated. Other health experts say it could trigger a new wave of infections. The WHO has said that researchers are currently trying to determine where the mutations are and what they potentially mean for diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, there’s a lot of work that is underway”, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said.
Some countries including U.S., UK, France, Israel and Seychelles have now temporarily banned travel from several southern African countries where the variant has been found.
The variant has already been found in the U.K., France, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong, but not yet in the U.S. as of the time of putting together this article.
Margaret Harris, spokesperson for the WHO, told CNBC that her organization had hoped there were no travel restrictions but understood that countries needed to take precautions.
Meanwhile, the WHO has said that the delta variant is still behind most of the current infections around the world and it is, therefore, the WHO’s priority while it waits to find out more about the omicron variant.