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Nations Close Borders as Omicron Spreads; Variant’s Severity Unclear

Countries in which at the new coronavirus variant “Omicron” have been confirmed as of Monday, November 29, 2021. As of now it is still unclear if the new mutation poses a greater risk of severe disease than all other variants known at the present time. Credit: Questzest BY-SA 4.0

A South African physician who was one of the first people worldwide to recognize the existence of the new coronavirus strain, now called Omicron, among her own patients said on Sunday that their symptoms had been so mild that they could be treated at home.

Although the variant has now been diagnosed in many nations all over the globe, from South Africa to Canada, Australia and Great Britain, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who is the chair of the South African Medical Association, told Reuters that her patients were suffering only “very mild” symptoms.

At that time, she picked up on clues that seven patients in her clinic were experiencing symptoms that were somewhat different from those caused by the Delta strain of there virus, which is by far the most dominant mutation around the world now.

Omicron first diagnosed in South Africa; symptoms “very mild”

The existence of the new variant, later to be dubbed “Omicron,” was announced by South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) on Nov. 25.

Coetzee said that one of her patients had been “extremely fatigued” for two days, suffering from body aches and headaches. She explained “Symptoms at that stage were very much related to normal viral infection. And because we haven’t seen COVID-19 for the past eight to 10 weeks, we decided to test,” she said.

That patient was indeed positive for the coronavirus, as was his entire family.

However, that very day, Coetzee saw several other patients with similar symptoms, prompting her to wonder if there was “something else going on,” she recalls. Ever since that time, she personally has treated two to three patients every day who have these same symptoms.

“We have seen a lot of Delta patients during the third wave. And this doesn’t fit in the clinical picture,” she explained.

“Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to (hospitals). We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home,” she said.

Unusually, there has been no loss of taste or smell in patients suffering from the Omicron variant, unlike all the other coronavirus variants to date. Importantly, there has been no decrease in oxygen levels with these patients either, she states.

Half of Omicron patients in South Africa unvaccinated; no deaths

So far, in her practice she has noted that almost half of her Omicron patients are unvaccinated; most of her patients suffering from this variant are also 40 or younger.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO), unsettled by the presence of the new variant and its detection all over the world announced on Monday that Omicron has shown that it spreads more easily and may lead to further surges in infection rates, saying that such spikes could lead to “severe consequences” in some places.

As of now, there have been no deaths linked to the Omicron mutation, but research must be undertaken to determine if the vaccines currently in use will work against it and if those who have antibodies to other strains will also have that natural protection against the new variant.

The WHO therefore urged all of its 194 member nations to accelerate vaccinations in their high-priority groups.

“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said in a statement, adding “The overall global risk …is assessed as very high.”

The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that the Omicron variant demonstrates how “perilous and precarious” the situation was worldwide as vaccination rates in some countries remains low, either due to  a lack of availability or resistance to the inoculation.

Investors showed their unease about the situation, as the variant begins to make its way around the world, taking approximately $2 trillion off the value of global stocks on Friday. However, the situation stabilized on Monday, even after Japan, which is the world’s third-largest economy, decided once again to close its borders to foreigners.

Israel, which had previously closed its own borders – even to its own citizens who tried to return home after the pandemic hit — took swift action once again, shutting its doors to all foreigners as of Monday morning. The country will also employ phone-tracking technology now used in counter-terrorism in the campaign to identify and track the spread of the new variant.

Australia, which had likewise closed its own borders in one of the strictest anti-Covid measures anywhere in the world, stranding its own people abroad, stated that it will review its existing plans to re-open borders to skilled migrants and students beginning on December 1.

Australia has already detected the presence of Omicron cases on its shores, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison still said it was a “bit too early” to call for two-week hotel quarantines for foreign travelers to the country.

Biden expected to address Omicron issues later on Monday

U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to provide updates regarding the variant and the response that the country will have to it later on Monday.

Meanwhile, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., the company that was created by the brilliant Greek scientist  stated today that its own diagnostic tests can accurately detect the Omicron variant.

One of South Africa’s most prominent infectious disease experts said that the variant does appear to be more transmissible than other mutations, and it can spread to those who already had immunity, including those who were vaccinated or had natural antibodies to the coronavirus through having recovered from it.

Already, one expert there says that the number of Omicron cases are likely to exceed 10,000 per day day this week, spiking from 2,858 on Sunday — and less than 300 per day just two weeks ago, according to Professor Salim Abdool Karim.

However, he added that it was too early to state definitely if Omicron symptoms were more severe than those caused by other strains of Covid-19; he also stated that existing vaccines are probably effective at precluding severe illness.

Thermo Fisher’s TaqPath COVID-19 assays can give accurate results even when one of the gene targets is impacted by a mutation, according to a statement issued by the company.

“This assay can be used not only to successfully detect COVID-19 but… it also be used as a proxy for the (Omicron) variant,” said Mark Stevenson, chief operating officer at Thermo Fisher Scientific, in an interview with Reuters.

He added that this is the only coronavirus diagnostic test that has been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is currently in use by health authorities that can show that a case is caused by the Omicron mutation.

Samples must still be sent to a laboratory for genetic sequencing before there can be any confirmation that the case was caused by Omicron, as opposed to a different variant, he added.

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