Dr Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of the South African Medical Association, was one of the first to detect there was a new strain. She says she has seen around 30 patients over the past 10 days who tested positive for COCIDbut had unfamiliar symptoms. They are suspected to have the Omicron variant, but Dr Coetzee says the symptoms are “very mild”.
She said: “What brought them to the surgery was this extreme tiredness.”
Dr Coetzee said most the patients were aged under 40 and under half had been vaccinated.
They complained of mild muscle aches, a “scratchy throat” and dry cough – and a few had slightly high temperatures.
Coetzee alerted health officials of a “clinical picture that doesn’t fit Delta”—South Africa’s dominant variant—on November 18.
It came after she received the first seven of her 30-off Omicron patients.
She said South African scientists had by then already picked up on the variant, then just known as B.1.1.529.
The announcement on November 25 of a new variant sparked global panic, with one expert describing it as “the worst one we’ve seen so far”.
Its catalogue of 32 mutations have made the virus “dramatically different” to anything seen before, according to experts.
The mutations occur throughout the virus, including on the spike protein which allows the coronavirus to enter human cells, leaving leading molecular biologists and virologists in the UK concerned.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it a variant “of concern”.
The WHO said it would take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant, as scientists worked to determine how transmissible it was.
It has now been detected in several countries in Europe, including nine cases in the UK.
Dr Coetzee said it was unfortunate that Omicron had been hyped as “this extremely dangerous virus variant” with multiple mutations while its virulency was still unknown.
She added: “We are not saying that there will not be severe disease coming forward.
“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.”
Dr Coetzee stressed that most patients she has treated have “very, very mild symptoms” and most have been treated “at home”.
She added that, unlike the Delta variant, patients have not reported loss of smell or taste and there has been no major drop in oxygen levels with the new variant.
Epidemiologist and SPD politician Karl Lauterbach, who is one of the candidates to become Germany’s next health minister, said it would be an “early Christmas gift” if Omicron was indeed milder.
But he cautioned that Germany, like much of Western Europe, had totally different demographics to South Africa, where only six percent of people are over 65 years old.
The Government has set out measures in response to the variant, including mandatory face masks in shops and on public transport in England.
And the Department for Education is now advising pupils in Year 7 and above, as well as school staff and visitors, to wear face coverings in communal areas.
The measure applies to education establishments in England including secondary schools, colleges and universities, as well as staff in childcare settings.
On Monday, an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers will be held “to discuss the developments on Omicron”.