The Slatest

Doctor Says Omicron Patients Have “Mild” Symptoms But Others Warn It’s Far Too Early to Know

A healthcare worker conducts a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test on a traveller at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 27, 2021.
A healthcare worker conducts a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test on a traveller at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 27, 2021. PHILL MAGAKOE/Getty Images

As the world tries to understand what the latest COVID-19 variant means, many have been quick to point to the statements by a South African doctor and a leading virologist to suggest that everyone may be making much ado about nothing. But reading too much into those statements also risks missing the bigger picture, experts warned. As governments shut down travel from southern Africa, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, one of the first South African doctors to suspect a different COVID-19 strain had emerged, talked to lots of media outlets to say that, so far at least, omicron doesn’t seem all that worrisome. The patients she saw starting in mid-November had “very mild” symptoms, Coetzee said.

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Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association, told the Telegraph she started suspecting something was up when patients started to come into her practice with symptoms that didn’t quite match up with other COVID-19 patients. They didn’t suffer from a loss of taste or smell and the vast majority were really just incredibly fatigued. “Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before,” she said. Most of the patients who showed up with these symptoms were healthy men, half of whom were unvaccinated, who suddenly reported “feeling so tired.” The vast majority though had “very, very mild symptoms” and they were all able to be treated at home, Coetzee told Reuters.

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Barry Schoub, chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, also sounded a cautiously optimistic tone. “The cases that have occurred so far have all been mild cases, mild-to-moderate cases, and that’s a good sign,” Schoub told Sky News while also cautioning it was still too early to know anything for certain. Even as she gave the seemingly good news, Coetzee also recognized that she hasn’t seen anywhere close to the full picture considering her patients were young and healthy. “What we have to worry about now is that when older, unvaccinated people are infected with the new variant, and if they are not vaccinated, we are going to see many people with a severe [form of the] disease,” she told the Telegraph.

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The World Health Organization also said it “will take days to several weeks” to understand the real severity of omicron. Although preliminary data has shown there has been an increase in hospitalizations in South Africa, “this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with omicron,” the WHO said.

Other experts were also quick to caution that the initial observations by Coetzee and others may not be that significant in the long run, reports the New York Times. It’s true the first cases of omicron were detected among younger people and logically those cases would be mild, regardless of whether the patients were vaccinated. Plus, considering cases have only started increasing over the last two weeks there just hasn’t been enough time to fully analyze the effects of the new variant. “There’s even barely enough time for infections to have had time to progress to severe disease and hospitalization,” Dr. Richard Lessells, who coordinates clinical and epidemiological data for the South African Covid Variant Research Consortium, tells the Times. If omicron leads to more severe illness it will only become apparent in a week or two.

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