From several members of a soccer club in Portugal to two travelers in the U.S., a new variant of COVID has begun making its way around the world. The Omicron variant has been located in at least 24 countries so far, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Virus experts warn that there is still much we don't know about the latest version of the virus, since it was only identified on Nov. 24, but there are concerns that the high number of mutations in the Omicron variant could make it spread more easily and evade immune responses. Right now, our information as anecdotal, including about the symptoms Omicron is causing in the people who contract it.
Elad Maor, MD, a cardiologist working in Tel Aviv, Israel, was the first Israeli to test positive for the new Omicron variant on Nov. 27, according to The New York Times. Maor told the news outlet that the symptoms he experienced after testing positive included a fever, sore throat, and aching muscles.
Maor also said he did not start to feel better until five days after and was concerned that the variant had hit him so hard even though he is fully vaccinated. "Despite everything, despite the vaccines and the booster, I was in bed for 48 hours," Maor told The New York Times in a phone interview.
But these are still mild symptoms compared to what some have experienced with the virus. Meanwhile, Angelique Coetzee, a South African doctor with a private practice in Pretoria and chair of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), recently told The Telegraph that she had seen Omicron cases that were presenting with strange but mild symptoms.
"Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before," Coetzee said, noting that most of the Omicron patients she had treated arrived "feeling so tired" with intense fatigue. But none of the patients had suffered from loss of taste or smell, which has been a tell-tale COVID symptom with previous variants.
Another doctor in South Africa, Mvuyisi Mzukwa, the vice chair of SAMA, told CNN on Dec. 1 that the most severe impact of the new variant is hitting unvaccinated individuals, as is the case with COVID on the whole. "What we've noted is that the people that are being hospitalized are largely unvaccinated, about 90 percent of those are unvaccinated," he said during an interview on CNN's New Day. Like the other doctors, Mzukwa said he had been seeing milder cases of Omicron among those vaccinated.
Reflecting on his own Omicron infection, Maor said, "If I didn't have the vaccine, I probably would have ended up in the hospital."
The Israeli cardiologist had also attended a large staff meeting, worked with multiple patients, driven to a cardiology conference, gone to a piano recital, and had dinner with extended family members in the three days before he tested positive, according to The New York Times. But five days after his initial positive test, only one of his close contacts had tested positive: a 70-year-old colleague he had shared a 90-minute car ride to the cardiology conference with.
This number could rise, as tests are still being conducted and it can take several days for the virus to show up. But according to the news outlet, at least 50 people he had come in contact with had been screened with a PCR test and at least 10 of those had tested negatively at least three times. This could be because most of the people Maor had exposed to the virus had received three shots of the Pfizer vaccine.
"This does tell us that, in some cases, Omicron is not as infectious if you're vaccinated," Gili Regev-Yochay, MD, director of the infectious disease epidemiology unit at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, told The New York Times.
At the same time, many virus experts, including Regev-Yochay, have warned against drawing too many conclusions from these isolated cases. White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, has said it will probably take two to four weeks to have enough research to get definitive answers on the new variant's severity and transmissibility.
"With the small number of cases, it is very difficult to know whether or not this particular variant is going to result in severe disease. Although some preliminary information from South Africa suggests no unusual symptoms associated with variant, we do not know and it is too early to tell," Fauci said during a Nov. 30 White House press briefing.