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In an interview about the new novel coronavirus variant of concern, dubbed ‘omicron’, the chairperson of the South African Medical Association, Angelique Coetzee, said: “Today the situation is not of huge concern to us. We are not overwhelmed by this surge. It’s not that we can’t keep up with sick persons.”
Coetzee said that as a clinician in Pretoria, she has seen – as her peers in the city have as well – that the infections of the omicron variant they have seen so far have been mild. At the same time, she said she wouldn’t exclude the possibility of some severe cases that hadn’t yet caught the attention of the surveillance programme.
She added that omicron’s transmissibility is likely to be “more or less the same as delta” – contrary to an estimate from Tom Wenseleers, a professor of biology and biostatistics at the KU Leuven University, that omicron’s basic reproduction number could be 6x that of the delta variant.
In a 27-minute interview to The Wire, Coetzee also said she had met with 30-40 patients with COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant in the last 10 days, all of them with mild symptoms, typically fatigue and headache. She also said that only three of them were fully vaccinated, and the rest were partially vaccinated.
However, Coetzee emphasised that it had only been five days since South African authorities discovered the first case with the omicron variant, and seven since the first in Botswana. According to her, we must wait for another two weeks until we can be reasonably certain that the symptoms remain mild.
As for South Africa’s ability to track the impact of the omicron variant, especially in terms of its transmission and ability to cause severe disease, Coetzee said a comprehensive and efficient system was already in place – the same system that allowed South African authorities to detect the variant’s presence so quickly.
On the flip side, she called the decision by many countries to cancel flights to South Africa “absolutely unacceptable”, that it was “unwarranted” and a “knee-jerk reaction”. She added that “going forward, this will affect openness and transparency”.