Suspected Omicron Covid-19 cases mild, says leading South Africa doctor

The World Health Organisation has designated it a variant of concern, and scientists are working to assess its behaviour. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PRETORIA (AFP)- A South African doctor who raised the alarm over Omicron said on Sunday (Nov 28) that dozens of her patients suspected of having the new variant had shown only mild symptoms and recovered fully without hospitalisation.

Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairman of the South African Medical Association, told Agence France-Presse that she had seen around 30 patients over the past 10 days who tested positive for Covid-19 but had unfamiliar symptoms.

"What brought them to the surgery was this extreme tiredness," she said, speaking from Pretoria, where she practises.

She said this was unusual for younger patients. Most were men aged under 40. Just under half were vaccinated.

They also had mild muscle aches, a "scratchy throat" and dry cough, she said. Only a few had a slightly high temperature.

These very mild symptoms were different from other variants, which resulted in more severe symptoms.

Dr Coetzee alerted health officials of a "clinical picture that doesn't fit Delta" - South Africa's dominant variant - on Nov 18, when she received the first seven of her 30-odd patients.

She said South African scientists had by then already picked up on the variant, then just known as B.1.1.529, which they announced on Nov 25.

The news sparked a panicked flurry of travel bans on southern Africa as countries raced to contain its spread - measures the South African government deems "rushed" and unjust.

According to a Covid-19 adviser to the South Africa government, symptoms linked to the Omicron coronavirus variant have been "pretty mild" so far.

While South Africa, which first identified the new variant, currently has 3,220 people with the coronavirus infection overall, there's been no real uptick in hospitalisations, Barry Schoub, chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, told Sky News on Sunday.

"The cases that have occurred so far have all been mild cases, mild-to-moderate cases and that's a good sign," said Schoub, adding that it was still early days and nothing was certain yet.

The large number of mutations found in the Omicron variant appears to destabilise the virus, which might make it less "fit" than the dominant Delta strain, said Schoub.

"In a way, hopefully it won't displace Delta because Delta we know responds very well to the vaccine," he said.

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Meanwhile, Dr Coetzee said it was unfortunate that Omicron had been hyped as "this extremely dangerous virus variant" with multiple mutations while its virulence was still unknown.

The World Health Organisation has designated it a variant of concern, and scientists are working to assess its behaviour.

The highly mutated variant is thought to be very contagious and resistant to immunity, although its ability to evade vaccines is still being assessed.

"We are not saying that there will not be severe disease coming forward," Dr Coetzee said. But "for now, even the patients that we have seen who are not vaccinated have mild symptoms".

"I'm quite sure... a lot of people in Europe already have this virus," she remarked.

Official statistics show that nearly three-quarters of the Covid-19 cases reported in South Africa in recent days have been identified as Omicron.

Since South Africa shared its discovery, a number of countries have detected Omicron infections in recent days, including Australia, Italy, Britain and Belgium.

"We will see a rise in cases," Dr Coetzee warned.

The continent's worst-hit country has seen its daily Covid-19 rate jump from 3.6 per cent on Wednesday to 9.2 per cent on Saturday.

Numbers remain relatively low, compared with the world's most affected nations, however, with around 2.9 million cases and 89,791 deaths reported to date.

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