Hospitals and GPs across Southern Africa are increasingly reporting that the symptoms of the aggressive new Covid strain Omicron are “unusual but very mild,” according to various media in South Africa this weekend.
Around 90 per cent of all new infections in the Johannesburg region are now caused by the Omicron strain but, so far, the Covid death rate and even hospital admissions appear not to be increasing significantly, local media report.
Some experts are therefore cautiously optimistic that – if Omicron turns out to be less lethal but more contagious and dominant than the Delta variant – the new mutation may actually be a blessing in disguise.
Hundreds of infected people across Southern Africa reportedly complain of nausea, headaches, fatigue and a high pulse rate, but none seem to suffer from a loss of taste or smell, which has been the case with most other Covid mutations.
Moreover, more and more medics across Southern Africa are confirming that most Omicron-infected patients merely have a severe headache, nausea or dizziness.
Dr Angelique Coetzee told various newspapers in South Africa: “Symptoms are so different and so mild from [non-Omicron] Covid patients I have treated before.”
A GP for over three decades, and chair of the South African Medical Association, she was the first African doctor to suggest to local authorities Covid had mutated into a new strain.
Coetzee reportedly said the symptoms “did not make immediate sense”, with patients including young people of different backgrounds and ethnicities with fatigue and a young child with a high pulse rate.
Blessing in disguise
Looking at the first data coming out of Southern Africa, virologist Marc van Ranst said this weekend that “if the omicron variant is less pathogenic but with greater infectivity, allowing Omicron to replace Delta, this would be very positive.”
The WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains, including Delta.
They said there is early evidence to suggest Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.
“It is extremely important we need to closely monitor the clinical data of Omicron patients in South Africa and worldwide,” Van Ranst stressed.
The variant has more than 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
Meanwhile, officials in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Czech Republic, Italy as well as the UK have confirmed the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus has appeared in their respective countries, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread.
Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5 million lives around the world, countries are on high alert.
In the Netherlands, 61 people on two flights from Cape Town to South Africa tested positive for Covid upon arrival in Amsterdam.
Race to tweak vaccines
More testing is needed and experts say it can take weeks before a clear picture will emerge.
Therefore, work is underway to look at tweaking vaccines. Novavax said it has “already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of Omicron and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks”.
Moderna said: “Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern.
“This strategy includes three levels of response should the currently authorized 50 µg (microgram) booster dose of mRNA-1273 prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant.”
In the meantime, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced yesterday a list of new Covid precautionary measures, including restrictions for those arriving in the UK, stricter rules on wearing masks in public places, and a “boost for the booster programme” for vaccination.
In a reunion that Brits won’t have been hoping for, Johnson held a Downing Street press conference alongside the UK’s chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty this afternoon.
In order to “act early” to curb the spread of the new Omicron variant, after the first two cases were identified in Nottingham and Essex yesterday Johnson announced the following new Covid measures.
Asked yesterday if the appearance of the new variant, which the World Health Organisation classified as a highly transmissible virus of concern, would get in the way of people’s Christmas plans, Johnson said: “I am pretty confident that this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas – that will be all on that one for the time being.”
Although the PM acknowledged that there were “many things that we don’t know at this early stage” with regards to the Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa on Wednesday, he was cautious about its nature.
“It does appear it spreads very rapidly and can be spread among people who are double vaccinated,” Johnson said.
“But it does divert quite considerably from other variants in the past, which may mean that people maybe aren’t so protected.”