Dr. Angelique Coetzee was in her practice in Pretoria, South Africa, on Nov. 18 when a 33-year-old man walked in complaining of severe exhaustion, body aches and pains, and a headache.
Coetzee, a general practitioner, hadn’t seen many COVID-19 patients in the previous two months, as infection rates in the country had plummeted in the summer. But then, when six other patients presented that same day with almost identical symptoms, Coetzee knew something was amiss.
Coetzee, who is also chair of South African Medical Association, alerted the National Institute for Communicable Diseases—South Africa’s version of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and within a week, the World Health Organization had confirmed that the world was dealing with a new variant of concern. They named it Omicron.
Within hours, governments around the world banned flights, reimposed hotel quarantines, and tightened restrictions. So far, the variant has been detected in more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and North America. But Omicron is likely already present in more countries around the world.
While the data already shows the new variant is at least as transmissible as Delta, which is the dominant COVID-19 variant globally, there’s still no evidence regarding a change in virus symptoms with Omicron or how the variant will impact vaccine effectiveness—if at all.
And that has led Coetzee and the South African government to criticize what they see as an overreaction to the new variant one scientist described as having a “horrific” number of mutations.
“From the clinician side, we think it's premature,” Coetzee told VICE News. “We're not saying it's never going to be a huge crisis going forward; we're just saying that there is not enough information going around on this variant.”
Scientists, the WHO, and vaccine makers have all said it will be at least a week before they have a clearer picture of what kind of threat Omicron poses.
“It is mild, at this stage, but if you're suffering from symptoms, go and see a medical practitioner,” said Coetzee, who has seen the variant mostly present in younger populations. “If you stay at home and you give this to your 60-year-old mother who's not been vaccinated, and she dies, then that will be on your conscience.”
In certain parts of South Africa, Omicron has quickly become the dominant strain of the virus.
Omicron was first detected in a sample collected on Nov. 9, according to the World Health Organization, though the agency has not specified where that sample was collected.
The WHO was first alerted to the new variant by South Africa on Nov. 24 as scientists began raising the alarm about a large number of mutations to the spike protein and the potential implications of such mutations. On Friday, Omicron was labeled a variant of concern.
“When you have a virus that’s showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re having travel-related cases, it almost invariably is going to go all over,” Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’ top infectious disease expert, told NBC reporter Kaitlan Collins on Saturday.
According to data in South Africa’s Gauteng region, where Pretoria and Johannesburg are located and where Omicron is most prevalent, hospitalizations due to COVID have tripled in the last two weeks. Still, it’s unclear if that increase is directly linked to the Omicron variant.
While the WHO has said it’s too early to make concrete statements about the severity or transmissibility of Omicron, it did say that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other variants of concern.”
Within hours of the new variant being reported to the WHO, governments in Europe and Asia began locking down their borders to travelers from southern African countries.
On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden announced similar measures for the U.S. that took effect on Monday. Travel from Lesotho, South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Botswana will be restricted, but U.S. citizens and green-card holders will be allowed to return.
“I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious,” Biden told reporters on Friday. “But we don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is of great concern; it seems to spread rapidly.”
South Africa has said the bans are an overreaction and are essentially punishing the country for identifying the variant so quickly.
“This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement over the weekend. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”
Others agreed. “South Africa should get a gold medal for the quality of its science and the quality of its transparency,” World Health Organization spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris told CNN.
Just like every other aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, from the origins of the virus to the vaccines used to treat it, Omicron has already been the subject of widespread disinformation by anti-vaccine activists and others.
Coetzee said she’s ignoring the messages she is getting from people spreading disinformation about the vaccine, saying she has better things to do than engage.
“This is not a made-up disease,” said Coetzee. “What we are seeing is real.”