Governments Are 'Overreacting' to Omicron Says Angelique Coetzee, Scientist Who Helped Identify It

A South African medical professional has criticized what she considers to be an "over-reaction" to the Omicron variant by some governments—but some scientists strongly disagree.

Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, says she was one of the first people in the world to have raised the alarm about the new variant of concern, though it should be noted that the variant was first collected and sequenced by others, as Newsweek previously reported.

In an interview with the BBC last month, Coetzee said she noticed patients with "unusual symptoms" who were testing positive for COVID shortly before Omicron became a household name worldwide.

She also asserted that, in her experience, patients have been coming forward with mild symptoms compared to the Delta variant.

In an opinion article for British newspaper the Daily Mail on Monday, Coetzee took aim at the U.K. government's reaction to the Omicron variant, which she called a "huge over-reaction" and "out of all proportion to the risks posed by this variant."

It comes after U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of an incoming "tidal wave" of Omicron cases in the country and, on Monday, confirmed the country's first death in an Omicron patient.

Alastair Grant, professor of ecology at the University of East Anglia School of Environmental Sciences in the U.K. told Newsweek that cases of the Omicron variant are "growing very rapidly, doubling every two days."

The U.K. has raised its COVID threat level to the second-highest and launched a huge effort to speed up its booster shot campaign in order to maximise protection in its population.

In addition, incoming new rules will require some venues and events, including nightclubs, to check the COVID status of visitors over 18, whilst face coverings are compulsory in most indoor venues, like cinemas and public transport. People have also been told to work from home if they can.

Whilst little is known about Omicron as of yet, the CDC has warned of deaths attributed to it and early data has suggested that the variant is extremely transmissible—more so than Delta—and more vaccine-resistant even to two shots, hence the booster effort.

But Coetzee has criticized restrictions. She wrote in the Daily Mail that she was "astonished by the extraordinary worldwide reaction" to Omicron, referring to travel and domestic restrictions in the U.K. and Europe.

"To date, some 23.5 million Britons have had all three vaccinations, so it's completely over the top to be talking about Plan Cs or lockdowns," she added. "Indeed, I am disappointed by such knee-jerk reactions. They bear no relation to what we're seeing in surgeries in South Africa, where people rarely even discuss Omicron."

Many scientists do not share Coetzee's views. "It's utter rubbish and betrays a complete lack of understanding of basic epidemiology," Deepti Gurdasani, senior lecturer at the William Harvey Research Institute at Queen Mary University of London, told Newsweek.

"The idea that the Omicron variant, and letting it spread, is in any way a good thing is completely nuts. Data from South Africa has shown more than doubling of hospitalizations each week, and predictably with lags, deaths are also now increasing in both Tshwane and Johannesburg.

"The U.K. government reaction, which is largely very reliant on boosters, is not sufficient. It's an underreaction that will very likely cost lives, rather than an overreaction."

Jeremy Kamil, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport, echoed the point.

He told Newsweek: "The world's getting tired of the pandemic. What she's saying is the message that people want to hear, and I think that's the most dangerous kind of message."

Kamil shared Coetzee's concerns over travel bans due to their effect on the scientists in South Africa who helped discover Omicron in the first place—but disagreed that we know enough about the variant to relax yet.

"For all we know, it could be a little bit more dangerous," he said. "It's so confounding when you look at a population two years into the pandemic, when so many other people who are the most susceptible died right away.

"In the first wave of the pandemic, it takes off the most susceptible; those people aren't contributing to the death rate anymore. And so you're left with people who already have some level of normal resistance. That doesn't mean the virus is less dangerous."

Meanwhile, Grant said he expects that Omicron cases "will rise substantially over the next days and weeks" and that even if only a small proportion of these people are hospitalized it could put "huge pressure on hospitals" already dealing with winter backlogs.

"Anything that we can do now to reduce the spread of Omicron will reduce the risk of it placing serious strain on our hospitals over the Christmas period," he said.

Heathrow Airport
A man walks through Heathrow Airport in the U.K. on November 26, 2021. Countries put travel restrictions in place after news of the Omicron variant emerged. Leon Neal/Getty