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Dr Angelique Coetzee who first spotted Omicron: We’re not going to get out of this easily

The South African doctor talks to Moneycontrol about how she detected Omicron, new variants and using commonsense, and not Facebook or Twitter in times of a pandemic

January 28, 2022 / 12:13 PM IST
Dr Angelique Coetzee is the South African doctor who flagged the Omicron variant. (Illustration: Suneesh Kalarickal)

Dr Angelique Coetzee is the South African doctor who flagged the Omicron variant. (Illustration: Suneesh Kalarickal)

Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first alerted authorities to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, doesn’t see the pandemic ending soon, dashing hopes that the fast-spreading strain could induce herd immunity.

The 62-year-old private practitioner based in Pretoria, who is also the chair of the South African Medical Association, says new variants will most probably keep emerging in the foreseeable future and we will not come out of the pandemic easily.

In an email interview to Moneycontrol, she talks about the Omicron variant, how it differs from the Delta strain and why antibiotics don’t help. Edited excerpts:

Is there any data on the time gap for reinfection by the Omicron variant among those vaccinated? Can a person who has been infected get the Covid in a short time? 

We do see reinfections from patients who had previous Delta or any of the other variants (patients suffered more than six months ago from any such variants) etc, but not with Omicron yet.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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There have been cases of infection even after two doses of vaccination and the booster.

Yes, it is true, also patients who had other variants before, fully vaccinated, can get/have got infected.

What in your opinion is the best treatment for Covid? Do antibiotics work?

One should know the symptoms as to understand when you are sick/infected. Then get the appropriate test done, rapid test vs PCR testing and if positive, see your doctor, especially if you are above 50 years and are suffering from chronic diseases/immune-compromising diseases, etc. Wear masks, stay away from crowds, get vaccinated.

Most important, use your common sense and not Facebook or Twitter or whatever your favourite social platforms are. There is no role for antibiotics. These medicines help only if you get a secondary bacterial infection.

Also read: Coronavirus Update | India reports over 2.5 lakh COVID-19 cases, 627 deaths

Are home-testing kits reliable? 

This depends on the brands, technique, etc. Unfortunately, we are not using home kits yet.

Is Omicron milder than Delta? Does the oxygen level not dip in Omicron? What are the symptoms that differentiate Omicron from Delta? 

Omicron’s clinical picture is that of a mild disease for most patients. This only means that the patient can be safely treated at home conservatively, no need for oxygen, etc. Severe disease means that the patient needs admission, needs oxygen, most cases have pneumonia, some need to be ventilated…this is not what the majority of people (are) clinically present with.

If a patient gets a severe disease, it will usually happen about 7-10 days later, after presenting in most cases with mild disease.

Omicron gives musculoskeletal pain, scratchy throat, might have blocked nose, might have a dry cough. Delta will present with loss of smell/taste, sore throat, might have a fever, might have a tachycardia, lower oxygen levels; progresses fast to severe disease needing oxygen. Clotting is also a problem if progressing to severe disease.

How will the variants evolve in the coming month?

No one knows about this.

How long do you think we will continue to be in the grip of these variants?

For still a long time to come…we are not going to get out of this easily.

How did you know that you had encountered a new variant? 

Different clinical picture, good history taking and daily physical examination of patients daily, years of clinical experience lets one develop a sixth sense!



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