The head of the South African Medical Association says there is a major difference between the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus and warns politicians against hyping the threat from the new strain.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee criticized Tuesday what she described as the “over-reaction” to the heavily mutated omicron variant by some European governments and cited Britain’s Boris Johnson, who she accused of creating “hysteria” about the new strain.
On Tuesday, the House of Commons approved the reimposition of pandemic restrictions, and the introduction of some new ones, because of rising omicron cases in the country, although Johnson faced a major rebellion by a third of his parliamentary party and relied on opposition parties for the vote.
Coetzee was one of the first medical practitioners in the world to raise the alarm about the new variant. Its genomic data was sequenced last month by scientists in Hong Kong, Botswana as well as South Africa. The emergence has contributed to pandemic alarm in Europe, where governments are already battling the delta strain and are racing to reimpose restrictions.
Coetzee told Britain’s Sky News that delta was heart-breaking and that her patients who contracted it were “extremely, extremely sick” and when opening the door to them “you just knew they were in trouble,” she explained.
But nearly a month into the omicron wave in South Africa, she says she has not seen similar grim scenes and that her omicron patients are suffering much milder symptoms. Apart from one, who had HIV and other comorbidities, none have died.
The British government’s medical advisers are predicting one million omicron infections by the end of the month, and although South Africa is seeing tens of thousands of new cases daily.
Coetzee cautions calm, saying Britain and other European countries are much better vaccinated than South Africa and in a better position to battle it. “Even if you get breakthrough infections, it's mild cases,” she added, saying she understands the need to take precautionary measures but says, “don’t hype it up.”
Some scientists disagree with Coetzee.
The chief executive of Britain’s Health Security Agency told lawmakers Wednesday that omicron “is probably the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic.”
Dr. Jenny Harries said the new variant was much more transmissible than delta and the rapid spread of omicron would lead to a “staggering” number of COVID cases over the next few days. She delivered a series of dire warnings about the country’s health care system, although she added it was probably too early to tell how serious the scale of increasing infections across the world would turn out to be.
“The difficulty is that the growth of this virus, it has a doubling time which is shortening, i.e., it’s doubling faster, growing faster,” she said.
Governments across Europe are closely observing events unfolding in Britain for a sense of what may lie ahead for them as omicron spreads, and they are worried that reinfection rates from omicron are much higher than has been seen with earlier variants.
Restrictions and penalties
More countries are adopting restrictions. Italy this week required negative tests from vaccinated visitors to the country. Portugal has a similar measure in place. Many European countries have a virtual lockdown for the unvaccinated and are scrambling to increase vaccine booster programs. And more governments, including Germany’s, are proposing or considering mandatory vaccines.
Austria and Italy already plan to impose hefty fines on eligible people who do not get vaccinated.
People over 65 years old in France will be under effective lockdown from Wednesday, if they have not received a third vaccine booster dose.
France’s health pass will no longer be valid for the elderly who have not received a third dose, barring those who have not been boosted from visiting restaurants or cafes or taking intercity trains. They will also be prohibited from visiting cultural venues like cinemas or museums.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned Wednesday the European Union faces a double challenge, with a massive increase of delta cases in recent weeks and the threat of omicron looming. “We’re seeing an increasing number of people falling ill, a greater burden on hospitals and unfortunately, an increase in the number of deaths,” she told European Parliament lawmakers.
“And what I’m concerned about is that we now [are] seeing the new variant omicron on the horizon, which is apparently even more infectious,” she added.
But as governments go into overdrive, some epidemiologists and virologists are echoing Angelique Coetzee. Professor Tim Spector, the head of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, London, says the “majority of symptoms are just like a common cold, so we're talking about headaches, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue, and things like sneezing.” He added: “So, things like fever and cough and loss of smell are now actually in the minority of the symptoms that we're seeing.”
Earlier this week, the first major study published into the new variant also suggested illness from omicron is less severe than from delta. The study of 78,000 omicron cases in South Africa found the risk of hospitalization is 29% lower compared with the Wuhan strain, and 23% lower than with delta. Far fewer people have been needing intensive care. Just 5% of omicron cases have been admitted to intensive care units compared to 22% of delta patients, the study shows.
The data for the study was compiled by Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest private health insurer, and the South Africa Medical Research Council. It noted omicron can evade vaccines more than earlier strains, but the study found vaccines are still holding up well, although there were high numbers of breakthrough infections in people who had been vaccinated.
Vaccine effectiveness against infection dropped from 80% to 33%, according to the study, but offered 70% protection against hospital admission. Boosters may also mitigate the reduction in vaccine effectiveness, according to the study. Some European scientists have cautioned, though, against reading too much into the South African study, saying that South Africa's population is much younger and that demographic differences could alter medical outcomes.