When the world finally began to return to normal, the discovery of the COVID–19 South Africa variant by Dr. Angelique Coetzee, Chair of the South African Medical Association, on November 14 spread a wave of panic across the globe. After being named Omicron, labeling it as a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organization 10 days later accelerated that process.
With positive cases identified in 57 countries (in every continent, except Antarctica) and in multiple states of the United States, it might seem that we are moving backward. The reintroduction of the face mask mandate and a vaccine passport system for large public gatherings in the United Kingdom banned flights from South Africa in multiple countries. A travel embargo was also put in place in countries such as Japan and Morocco and with these new restrictions, the COVID–19 South Africa variant became something to be concerned about.
The extent of its symptoms, transmissibility, and severity are largely unknown, however, what do we know about this new South Africa variant?
About the New South Africa Variant
The term ‘South Africa variant’ is a misnomer. It gives the impression that the people of that region are to be blamed for this mutation, which is not the case. There is nothing geography-specific about this virus and, the medical professionals of South Africa just identified it.
Omicron has around 50 new mutations in its structure. One of them is a gene deletion (like alpha, beta, gamma, and lambda variants) that could increase its virulence, strength, and ability to evade the body’s immune system. Thirty of these mutations are near the virus’s spike protein, raising the possibility of its transmission across populations. Some also increase the infectivity of this COVID–19 South Africa variant.
Symptoms of the COVID–19 Omicron Variant
When SARS CoV-2 first came into discovery, it quickly became common knowledge that a high fever, sore throat, cough, and loss of taste and smell meant you were infected and needed to be socially isolated. These remained consistent with the delta variant, but that is not the case with the COVID–19 South Africa variant.
A low-grade fever remains consistent, but there is no loss of taste and smell in the new South Africa variant. It brings with it mental fatigue with a lack of focus, productivity, and increased exhaustion, and physical with muscle quickness and the tendency to get readily tired. People also complain of body aches, headaches, runny noses, and scratchy throat, unique to Omicron. There is an absence of coughing here, which is why the throat is no longer sore. Instead, there will be more of a scratchy feeling there.
Since it is the cold and flu season and the symptoms of this new variant are very similar, getting tested is always the best option. A nasal swab PCR test is as practical to detect Omicron as it was for the first SARS CoV-2 and the subsequent variants. However, the efficacy of other diagnostic tests such as the Rapid Antigen Detection Test is yet debatable, and research is underway.
The Severity of the Symptoms
The first American to test positive for the COVID-19 South Africa variant, Peter McGinn, described his experience as mild cold, with a runny nose, a troubling throat, and some fatigue. Additionally, people who contracted this variant in South Africa reported similar mild symptoms. However, that cannot be taken at face value as many other factors are at play.
For example, over 80% of those afflicted were under 50 – an opposite trend to what was noticed in other variants. People in this age bracket are generally fitter, with a more robust immune system, which could explain the observed mildness of the COVID–19 South Africa variant. We still do not know if this age group is more genetically vulnerable to this variant or simply at higher risk for being the more active and exposed one.
There has been one Omicron death reported in the UK so far, while the rate of hospitalizations due to this South Africa variant is rising in South Africa. Again, that does not say anything about the severity of transmissibility of this infection, as the high rate of hospitalization could be related to the high number of infections in the first place. Additionally, those hospitalized seldom require oxygen supplementation.
The exact severity of symptoms can only be reported after some weeks of infection, and since this new South Africa variant is only two weeks old, the jury is still out.
People who had previously contracted other variants of SARS CoV-2 are also at risk of getting reinfected with the Omicron variant, as is suggested by preliminary evidence in South African hospitals. This risk of reinfection was lower in the other variants.
Is the COVID –9 South Africa variant More Transmissible?
The UK Health Secretary voiced his concerns regarding the possible transmissibility of the COVID–19 South Africa variant. According to CDC too, this variant could spread more quickly than the other variants, even among the vaccinated and asymptomatic population. This hypothesis is supported by the mutations mentioned above, the high number of infections in Africa, and research that denote it spread twice as quickly as other variants.
The rise in cases in Africa has been drastic with Omicron, which was not the case with the Beta and Delta variants. However, epidemiological studies as to why that happened are still underway. Therefore, we concretely know very little about the transmissibility of the COVID–19 South Africa variant.
Effectiveness of Vaccines against Omicron
The pre-existing vaccines do not show any resistance against the COVID–19 South Africa variant, as vaccinated individuals in South Africa have tested positive for it. However, current vaccines can still mitigate the severity of an infection, which means reduced chances of hospitalizations, life-threatening symptoms, or death.
Additionally, pharmaceutical companies have expressed optimism in their ability to modify the existing vaccines slightly, so they also accommodate resistance against the new South Africa variant.
Vaccines are the secret to slowing transmission and reducing the likelihood of any new strains, which is why there is an urgent need to eliminate the vaccine disparity across the globe. It needs to be more accessible in developing countries.
What Can You Do?
As COVID-19 is fading in severity across the world, it is still important to keep your immunity high. We recommend taking a daily dose of vitamins, including Vitamin D3, Zinc, Vitamin C, Quercetin, and NAC.
Early treatment of symptoms with FDA-approved therapeutics like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloriquine may also be effective if taken in the first few days of symptoms.
Be sure to speak to your healthcare provider if you have any questions.
Take preventive measures and stay well!