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’Oh no, not again’ – Dr Coetzee on her discovery of Omicron

A nurse holds a test tube for COVID-19. Image AP Photo/Paul Sancya

A nurse holds a test tube for COVID-19. Image AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Published Dec 7, 2021

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When Dr Angelique Coetzee discovered the Omicron variant last month, when Covid-19 cases were rising, she was in shock and her heart sank because it had come earlier than expected.

“The first thing that went through my mind was: ‘Oh no, not again’. We predicted that we would see a fourth wave but we were quite confident that it would happen towards the end of December or the beginning of January,” she said.

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Coetzee, the chairperson of the South African Medical Association (Sama), said patients were presenting with mild symptoms, although research was still under way

The 29-year-old “Patient Zero” who came into Coetzee’s private practice in Pretoria, presented with mild symptoms of tiredness, muscle aches and overall not feeling well.

“At first, I thought it was a resurgence of the Beta variant because of the different types of symptoms,” she said.

After conducting a rapid polymerase chain reaction test, one of the technicians at Lancet Laboratories noticed some irregularities with her patient's test results and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) was alerted.

Research suggests the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the Delta variant. Work is under way to determine if the variant could evade vaccine immunity.

“I think the Omicron is going to replace the Delta variant if the clinical picture stays what it is currently,” Coetzee said. “The next three weeks, regarding hospitalisations and severe cases into the ICUs, will tell us how severe this variant can be.”

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The country is entering its fourth wave of Covid-19. The NICD reported that new cases had increased by more than 300% in the past seven days.

Gauteng accounts for around 70% of new daily infections.

The Omicron variant has more mutations than previous variants, with more than 30 mutations on its spike protein, and there are certain mutations that are concerning.

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There are no unusual symptoms associated with the Omicron variant. Researchers are investigating whether the mutations could lead to increased transmissibility or severity.

Coetzee said that in her 33 years as a general practitioner, she never thought her identification of a new variant would attract such global attention.

The discovery of the Omicron variant caused alarm across the world. The UK, the EU and the US placed travel restrictions on southern African countries soon after the announcement.

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Coetzee said the hype around the new variant did not warrant a travel ban against South Africa.

“The world, especially England, had a knee-jerk reaction. They stopped everything even after our scientists told them that not enough is known about the variant, whether it is more transmissible or more severe,” said Coetzee.

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