A South African doctor who was one of the first to suspect a different coronavirus strain has said that symptoms of the Omicron variant appear to be mild and could be treated at home.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, told Reuters that on 18 November she noticed seven patients at her clinic who had symptoms different from the dominant Delta variant, albeit “very mild”.
Called Omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO), the variant was detected and announced by South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) on 25 November from samples taken from a laboratory from 14 to 16 November.
Scientists around the world are now scrutinising the variant to examine how transmissible it is and if the current vaccines will protect against it.
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There is little data on how the variant has affected those outside of South Africa so it is not known if these symptoms will be similar for people infected with Omicron in other places.
Dr Coetzee said a patient on 18 November reported at her clinic being “extremely fatigued” for two days with body aches and headache.
“Symptoms at that stage was very much related to normal viral infection. And because we haven’t seen COVID-19 for the past eight to 10 weeks, we decided to test,” she said, adding that the patient and his family turned out to be positive.
On the same day, more patients came in with similar symptoms, which was when she realised there was “something else going on”.
Since then, she’s seen two to three patients a day.
“We have seen a lot of Delta patients during the third wave. And this doesn’t fit in the clinical picture,” she said, adding she alerted NICD on the same day with the clinical results.
“Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to surgeries. We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home,” she said.
Her experience so far has been that the variant is affecting people who are 40 or younger. Almost half of the patients with Omicron symptoms that she treated were not vaccinated.
South Africa has a much younger population than the UK which could explain why patients have not been severely ill with the variant.
The news of the new variant emerging from South Africa prompted a swift reaction from several countries, including Britain, which on Friday imposed a travel ban on several southern African countries with immediate effect, a decision South Africa has strongly contested.
So, what are the symptoms of Omicron?
The WHO says there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.
However, Dr Coetzee said fatigue was one of the main symptoms her patients were reporting.
She told AFP a scratchy throat, mild headache and body aches were also noted in people who tested positive for the variant.
Dr Coetzee, who is also on the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, said unlike the Delta variant so far patients have not reported loss of smell or taste and there has been no major drop in oxygen levels with the new variant.
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