The South African doctor who discovered the first patient with the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which triggered panic in world markets and lockdowns across the board — including a travel ban of multiple African countries to the United States and Europe — says that she is “stunned” by the reaction.
“I have been stunned at the response — and especially from Britain. And let me be clear: nothing I have seen about this new variant warrants the extreme action the UK government has taken in response to it,” said Angelique Coetzee in an op-ed for the Daily Mail.
Coetzee, who is the chair of the South African Medical Association, and has practiced medicine for 33 years told the publication that she has seen a lot over her medical career, but nothing prepared her for the global reaction to her discovery of Omicron in a patient.
Clarifying that the Omicron variant had already been “circulating in southern Africa for some time, having been previously identified in Botswana,” she stated that “nothing has prepared me for the extraordinary global reaction that met my announcement this week that I had seen a young man in my surgery who had a case of COVID that turned out to be the Omicron variant,” she wrote.
Remarking on the travel restrictions imposed by the United States and Europe, she stated, “The simple truth is: we don’t know yet anywhere near enough about Omicron to make such judgments or to impose such policies.”
“In South Africa, we’ve retained a sense of perspective. We’ve had no new regulations or talk of lockdowns because we’re waiting to see what the variant actually means. We’ve also become accustomed here to new COVID variants emerging. So when our scientists confirmed the discovery of yet another, nobody made a huge thing of it. Many people didn’t even notice.
“If, as some evidence suggests, Omicron turns out to be a fast-spreading virus with mostly mild symptoms for the majority of the people who catch it, that would be a useful step on the road to herd immunity.
“We’ll learn in the next two weeks if that’s the case.
“The worst situation — of course — would be a fast-spreading virus with severe infections. But that’s not where we are at the moment.”
“Here in South Africa, what I and my GP colleagues are seeing doesn’t in any way warrant the knee-jerk reaction we’ve seen from the UK,” she added.
“At the moment, I’m afraid it seems to me that Britain is merely hyping up the alarm about this variant unnecessarily,” said Coetzee. “Yes, the picture might one day look different. I have yet to see older, unvaccinated people infected with the new variant, for example, and they might well present with a more severe form of the disease. But the reality is that COVID is something we have to learn to live with. Look after yourself and get your vaccines. Above all, don’t panic — and that goes for governments as well.”
Dr. Coetzee reiterated her remarks on talkRADIO, telling host Julia Hartley-Brewer that the “hype makes no sense at all.”
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported on Britain’s decision to ban travel from southern African countries.
“With worries about Omicron flaring across the world, Britain has fallen in line with its neighbors,” the Times reported. “The government quickly banned travel from 10 African countries, made face masks compulsory in shops and on public transportation, and on Monday announced a huge acceleration of its vaccine program — including expanding eligibility for booster shots to anyone 18 or older.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified the Omicron variant as a “Variant of Concern,” which is “based on multiple factors, including the detection of Omicron cases in multiple countries, transmission and displacement of Delta in South Africa, and mutations in the virus that could indicate a reduction in the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and certain monoclonal antibody treatments.”