Over the past few days, we have been inundated with scattered reports and urgent warnings about the Omicron variant of COVID, which health officials fear could spread across the globe and quickly overtake Delta as the dominant variant of the virus. While there is still much we don't know about the newly discovered Omicron, the variant's shocking number of mutations mean it could be more transmissible and more likely to evade immune responses than the previous forms of COVID. So far, Omicron has not been identified in the U.S., but experts believe it's only a matter of time. With that in mind, it's important to learn all we can to be fully prepared, including about the unique symptoms of the Omicron variant compared to prior iterations of COVID.
It's essential to keep in mind that all the information we have about this new form of COVID is still preliminary. There are a number of studies being conducted to learn more about Omicron, from how it spreads to how effective our existing vaccines will be against it, with results expected in the coming weeks. Nevertheless, anecdotal information can be helpful in giving us a clearer picture of what to expect—and one doctor in South Africa is offering her assessment of Omicron symptoms based on the COVID patients she has seen.
Angelique Coetzee, a doctor with a private practice in Pretoria and chair of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), told The Telegraph that so far Omicron cases seem to present with strange but mild symptoms. "Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before," she said.
Most of the Omicron patients Coetzee has treated arrived "feeling so tired," making intense fatigue the most consistent symptom that's been reported. On the other hand, none of these patients suffered from loss of taste or smell, which has been one of the tell-tale COVID symptoms up to this point.
In terms of other surprising symptoms, Coetzee told The Telegraph, "We had one very interesting case, a kid, about six-years-old, with a temperature and a very high pulse rate, and I wondered if I should admit her, but when I followed up two days later she was so much better."
Coetzee has stressed that it's too early to make any larger predictions about what an Omicron wave would mean for the world—and if we'll even reach that point. In an interview with The Guardian, she reiterated that the cases she's seen have been mild, but acknowledged that it's too soon to know for sure if that will hold for a broader spectrum of Omicron infections.
"It's all speculation at this stage. It may be it's highly transmissible, but so far the cases we are seeing are extremely mild," Coetzee said. "Maybe two weeks from now I will have a different opinion, but this is what we are seeing. So are we seriously worried? No. We are concerned and we watch what's happening. But for now we're saying, 'OK, there's a whole hype out there. [We're] not sure why.'"
If Omicron turns out to produce less severe COVID cases, even among the unvaccinated, that could indicate the virus is moving toward the endemic stage, where it would still circulate but in a more manageable way. On Twitter, Eric Topol, MD, a cardiologist and executive vice president of Scripps Research, shared Coetzee's interview with The Telegraph, writing, "This could be the best Omicron news of the day if further confirmed tracking all confirmed cases … Not many have been thinking that the mutation laden variant could decrease virulence."
Unfortunately, it's too soon to know if Coetzee's initial assessment of cases will be accurate in a larger sense, as she herself has acknowledged. It's important to note that her patients were mostly healthy young people, who are more likely to experience a milder COVID case, regardless of the variant. In her interview with The Telegraph, Coetzee said she was concerned about how Omicron could affect older people, particular those with known COVID comorbidities like heart disease and diabetes.
"What we have to worry about now is that when older, unvaccinated people are infected with the new variant, and if they are not vaccinated, we are going to see many people with a severe [form of the] disease," she told the newspaper.