"I cannot make a disease worse, and create fear out there," says Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who discovered Omicron.
In an interview on Just the News Not Noise, Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, described the pressure she faced from public health authorities worldwide to portray the now-dominant variant of COVID-19 as more severe than she was witnessing in real time.
"I said to my secretary, 'Just give me another Nexium,'" she recalled, referring to a medication that reduces stomach acid. "That's how I survive" and "stick to my guns."
She declined to name which officials were particularly bearing down on her to conform South Africa's first-in-the-world experience with Omicron to the international narrative that any new variant would be deadly.
Coetzee previously said "all of these scientists and politicians who aren't from South Africa were contacting me telling me I was wrong" when she publicly described typical Omicron symptoms as "a bit of a headache" and "more of a scratchy" throat.
"I'm not going to put my head into that hornet's nest" by naming the international heavyweights who put politics over science, she told the podcast. "They know what they said ... unfortunately, we all have to work together."
Coetzee believes that scientists, "especially in the beginning," were frightened by Omicron "because all they saw was the mutations and the immune escape possibility."
When she and her colleagues started to refer to the variant as "a mild disease, we were told, 'You cannot say it's a mild disease, it's a severe disease, look at the mutations. And it's too early ... You should not say it out there.'"
She's not saying "it's not a severe disease for people with comorbidities" or for those who are unvaccinated. "They could still die from it," Coetzee told the podcast. "But for the majority of people, it's a mild disease, and I refuse to change the story."
The doctor was not simply describing her own patients. In the first three weeks observing Omicron, "I kept on checking with all the doctors in South Africa," especially general practitioners, she recalled.
"Every day we spoke," and she asked whether others saw "a different pattern" or more admissions, Coetzee said. "They kept on telling me ... there's no overflow of patients."
This was a surprise, as was the timing of Omicron, which the doctor said arrived "a whole month too early" given previous waves. Her first thought: "Please, not now."
They were still thinking in terms of the "very scary" Delta variant, but the symptoms turned out to be completely different.
"The first seven patients that I saw on the same day, we started to treat them exactly the same as with Delta, as we didn't know," Coetzee recounted. "And it took me around about four or five days to start to realize that the symptoms are much milder," with safe at-home treatment, "no need for oxygen" and apparently no "cardiovascular side effects." Instead patients had "myalgia, muscle aches and pains, headaches, low back ache, or intercostal pain."
At that stage, they alerted authorities and took another five days to confirm this was a new variant. But the high number of mutations was all they cared about, and futile travel bans soon followed.
"The virus is everywhere, loves to travel," Coetzee said, and COVID testing wouldn't catch early infections in those who were flying abroad. "It's like a storm in a teacup ... It's already there. You just didn't know it."
She emphasized the value of South Africa's experience for international COVID policy, since the country "started to vaccinate only in our third wave."
Regardless of vaccination, recovery from infection or both, "the chances that you can get mild disease is quite quite high," Coetzee said, but unvaccinated patients are more likely to have the severe end of mild symptoms, such as headaches and fatigue.
"We do see that in our ICUs, 80% are unvaccinated," she said, while those who are vaccinated, especially older than 50 with comorbidities or conditions such as lupus, will be "much more safer."
While she credited face masks, social distancing and hand-washing for a decline in "normal upper respiratory tract infections" in South Africa, Coetzee warned that people should only wear "clean" masks and replace them regularly. "Otherwise, it becomes a bacterial trap for yourself and trap for other viruses."
She's not confident that the world will ever know where COVID originated, or "whether it was tampered with. ... We'll have to learn to live with it. I don't think it's really going to go away."