The doctor who raised the alarm about the Omicron variant today said family and community doctors are still seeing “mild disease” – but warned it’s too early to say how much of a danger it is.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, told UK MPs the suggestion that the Omicron variant may be around 29% less severe than Delta “makes sense to us”.
But she warned it is “still early days” to see what will happen in intensive care, with the variant being discovered less than four weeks ago.
“The current picture in the primary healthcare space in South Africa is that of mild disease,” she told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.
“We said right from the beginning we don’t have all the answers, we still need to see how this virus progresses.”
Questioned on England’s plan for Covid passes, she said standing up emergency care would be a better approach than blanket restrictions.
She said: “For us the most important place to look at is what happens in hospital level.
“If anything will happen, it will happen at those severe hospitals. And there you need to plan, you need to make sure everything is in place.
“People who were supposed to leave may be on standby. That would help much more than bringing in just blanket restrictions going forward.”
Dr Coetzee also suggested vaccines make a major difference, despite the virus still affecting the vaccinated.
She said she had personally seen 88 patients at a low level of which 39 were jabbed and 43 were unjabbed.
But in hospitals, she said, 88% to 90% of patients are unvaccinated.
The medical expert told MPs if Omicron cases are predominantly mild, “then we don’t see the need for stricter restrictions” and “maybe in a way we need to learn how to live with this”.
However, she did suggest South African authorities should “extend the curfew” and “look at the social gatherings” in the country.
Dr Coetzee criticised the UK for slapping a ban on international travel so quickly and said no one can prove where the variant emerged.
“I don’t think anyone can claim it was first started in their country,” she said.
The expert said Omicron symptoms “are definitely not the same as Delta”, and can include waking up with a headache.
“Even if you wake up with a slight headache, not feeling well, please come and let us double check,” she said.
She advised that for people who wake up with a headache, “it would be prodigious to wait 24 hours for a rapid test” as it may not come up positive straight away.
She said a rapid test “can be a false negative in the first 24 hours” with mild symptoms but then come back positive later.
Meanwhile the head of Britain’s vaccine watchdog warned Brits may need more regular boosters in future thanks to the decision to rush through a shorter rollout.
JCVI chief Prof Wei Shen Lim said waiting three months, not six, for a booster dose “might mean a lower peak protection”.
He added the shorter gap was only approved on the basis that an “Omicron wave will come soon”.
He told MPs: “If you get the booster at six months and you teach a higher level, say 200, and that wanes at a certain constant rate, to drop from 200 to 50 would take a period of time.
“If you get the booster at three months and the peak level it can get to is lower, say 150, and it wanes at the same rate, it will reach 50 at an earlier time point.”
Asked if that means people may need to get more regular boosters, he replied: “Indeed.
“And that’s why, generally if possible, we try and push out the duration between two doses.”
Prof Wei Shen Lim defended the decision to only ramp up the booster programme on November 29.
He said extending to all over-18s after three months “could” have been announced earlier.
But he told MPs: “I don’t think it would have been appropriate to come earlier.”
He said the Omicron variant was only identified on November 23, and he could not produce “prophetic advice”.
And he said the ideal situation would have been to wait longer than three months before the second and booster dose.
He added: “If the booster were given at three months, it will wane earlier, and a shorter time to boost might mean a lower peak protection.
“So it’s not necessarily true that giving a booster sooner is better.
“If anything, all things being equal, giving a booster as far apart as possible gives the best immune response.
“And so one wants to choose the furthest time point, if one can.”
Ex-Vaccine Taskforce boss Kate Bingham said the UK needs to “stay ahead of the curve” to be able to develop new vaccines within 100 days to see off new variants.
She told MPs: “Everything is suggesting that this is an endemic virus and it is going to stay here forever and we are going to need to be able to need all different types of approach to tackle it.”
Ms Bingham said regular jabs could be necessary forever, particularly for the most vulnerable.
“This is a global pandemic so we have to get vaccines out to everybody who needs them – especially the immunocompromised,” she said.
“It would be prudent to develop variant vaccines so that what I think would be the annual boosts – certainly for the vulnerable – will be against Omicron rather than Wuhan.”
Asked what should have been 3 months ago to prepare, she said the Government needed to enact its variant plan – but she didn’t know whether this had happened.
Last month, former taskforce chair Clive Dix accused the Government of ignoring his proposals to prepare for vaccine-resistant mutations.
Ms Bingham said: “I would have enacted the variant plan that Clive [Dix] put together which was to go ahead and start predicting what sort of potential mutations we could face and what is the diminution of protection from the existing vaccines with those variants and I would have started making them.”
The decision to cancel a vaccine contract with French manufacturer Valneva in September was “problematic”, she said.
“To me it was shortsighted to cancel a capability of a state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing plant,” she said.
Ms Bingham wanted that variants would continue to emerge unless the world was vaccinated – and warned that vaccines were being wasted around the world.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.