The Margin: ‘There’s no reason to test if you have no symptoms,’ and two more surprising statements by a South African doctor instrumental in identifying omicron

United States

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who is among those credited with alerting the world to the omicron variant of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, on Friday offered a few intriguing findings about the strain that has contributed to hundreds of flights being canceled on Christmas Eve, as the illness depletes air-carrier workforces.

Notably, Coetzee suggested that asymptomatic cases of the omicron variant are rare, if such a condition exists at all.

Asked during a Christmas Eve interview on MSNBC whether she had intended to indicate that “there was not such a thing as an asymptomatic case of omicron,” Coetzee responded: “We haven’t seen it.”

Read: Experts say take a rapid COVID-19 test right before a holiday gathering

Secondly, the private practitioner and chairwoman of the South African Medical Association told MSNBC on Friday that she doesn’t recommend rapid antigen tests for individuals until, and if, symptoms arise from the variant, but rapid tests will identify or confirm cases in those experiencing symptoms. “There’s no reason to test if you don’t have symptoms,” she said.

The doctor stated that in her experience with the omicron strain rapid testing will only work “if you have positive symptoms of omicron.”

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Coetzee, in the past, has been widely quoted as having said that omicron cases differ from those stemming from other variants, including the recently dominant delta variant, because cases are milder and manifest differently.

Thirdly, Coetzee said that her findings suggest omicron attacks the musculoskeletal system to start with and therefore symptoms, when they appear, impact muscles, bones, joints and ligaments and might be described as aches and pains by those afflicted, rather than the type of upper-respiratory response that impacts the nose and throat, which has been most commonly associated with earlier virus iterations.

‘Rapid tests, if they are positive after 18 hours, you can believe it. They are very, very — they are a good source to use.’

— Dr. Angelique Coetzee

“So, people will tell us they went to bed last night [and say that] they felt warm and cold during the night,” and then wake up with a headache, “body aches and pain, chest pain, or backache and fatigue — that’s omicron,” she told MSNBC.

“If you have that, wait about 18 hours, go and test. Rapid tests, if they are positive after 18 hours, you can believe it. They are very, very — they are a good source to use,” she said.

Coetzee’s remarks come as several major airlines, including Delta Air Lines DAL, +0.43%, United Airlines UAL, +0.67% and JetBlue Airways Corp. JBLU, +0.20%, as well as Germany’s Lufthansa LHA, have canceled hundreds of flights due to crew illnesses attributed to the omicron variant.

Those cancellations come as coronavirus infections fueled by the new variant further squeeze staffing at hospitals, police departments, supermarkets and other critical operations struggling to maintain full contingents of frontline workers.

Even still, the U.S. on Friday announced that it will lift restrictions, imposed last month as the virus was first identified, on eight southern African countries on New Year’s Eve, the White House announced.

The Nov. 29 ban barred nearly all non–U.S. citizens who had recently been in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The World Health Organization last month designated omicron a variant of concern because of the high number of mutations on the spike protein, which is the site at which most treatments and vaccines target.

In the U.S., omicron accounted for 73% of new domestic infections in the week through Dec. 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from just 13% the week before.

Coronavirus Update: South Africa offers grounds for cautious optimism on omicron variant, and Israel rolls out fourth vaccine dose to vulnerable groups

Coetzee, meanwhile, has described treatments for the omicron variant as “quite easy,” speaking during a separate interview with the Times of India on Tuesday.

“We start immediately after the diagnosis with low-dosage cortisone and something like ibuprofen to help with the muscle pain and headaches, and that’s it. That’s what we give. There’s nothing else. There’s no oxygen, not even antibiotics required,” she was quoted by the publication saying.

Beyond canceled flights, the spread of omicron is causing headaches among offices and schools and universities hoping to remain open after the holiday break, nearly two years into the COVID pandemic.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden said the administration is preparing to distribute 500 million free rapid at-home tests starting in January, among other initiatives to quell the spread of the virus.

Despite the canceled events, long testing lines, and an anxious national mood, Biden said Tuesday that the current moment was fundamentally unlike the pandemic’s earliest days in March 2020. “The bottom line is, it’s a lot better than it was, but we are taking even more steps to make it easier to get tests and get tested for free,” the president said.

Financial markets have been slowly shaking off fears centered on the spread of this latest coronavirus strain, with the S&P 500 SPX, +0.62% booking its 68th record close of 2021 on Friday and the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.55% and the Nasdaq Composite COMP, +0.85% notching their third straight advances, after anxiousness about the virus knocked the stock market lower on Monday.