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The new COVID-19 variant omicron appears to produce "mild" symptoms in the first reported cases, according to doctors and researchers in South Africa and the European Union.
As health officials scramble to learn more about omicron amid fears that it could be the most contagious COVID-19 variant yet, initial cases indicate that it causes mild symptoms, or even asymptomatic cases.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first spotted the variant, said that she had started seeing patients in mid-November with "unusual symptoms" that were slightly different from the typical COVID-19 effects.
"It actually started with a male patient who's around the age of 33 ... and he said to me that he's just [been] extremely tired for the past few days and he's got these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache," she told the BBC on Sunday.
Rather than a sore throat, Coetzee first patient had a "scratchy throat" and didn't develop a cough or lose their sense of taste or smell, yet he and his family tested positive for COVID-19. Soon, she began seeing more patients with similar symptoms and flagged South Africa's vaccine advisory committee that there could be a new strain.
Coetzee said that none of the patients she or her colleagues have seen with omicron needed to be admitted to the hospital.
And on Tuesday, the European Union's public health body said that they've found 44 cases containing the omicron variant in 10 of their member countries, all of which had mild or asymptomatic illness.
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Still, the speed at which the omicron variant has spread and the fact that the strain carries around 50 mutations which have previously not been seen together has scientists and health officials concerned. Given omicron's high number of mutations, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., said Saturday that "you have to assume" it could be the most contagious variant yet.
"We have not detected it yet [in the U.S.]," he said, "but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases that they've noted in Israel and Belgium and in other places — when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over."
Researchers are currently studying the variant to learn more about how it spreads, and vaccine makers like Pfizer and Moderna are already testing their formulations against the variant.
But even if current vaccines are less effective against omicron, they can still make a difference, and Fauci urged unvaccinated people to get their shots and for Americans to get a booster dose, if eligible.
"It is absolutely essential that unvaccinated people get vaccinated and the vaccinated people get boosters," Fauci said. "We know now clearly that when you get a booster shot ... you dramatically increase the level of protection [you have]."
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