State of Disaster

Stock image of a coronavirus cell – Photo: Pixabay

Omicron: Why didn’t the UK listen to South Africa’s best and brightest?

One variant, two different responses. The UK didn’t want to listen to South Africa on Omicron – until the same results were seen elsewhere.

State of Disaster

Stock image of a coronavirus cell – Photo: Pixabay

The last six weeks have been nothing short of a rollercoaster. The discovery of a new COVID-19 variant in South Africa put the entire world on edge, and just hours after the Department of Health went public with its findings on Omicron, Mzansi was slapped by a number of travel bans.

Six weeks of Omicron – here’s what we learned…

Governments worldwide, including the UK’s, said they were acting within the best interests of their own people. But the ridiculousness of relying on harsh and unforgiving travel bans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was soon laid bare – and most countries have since dropped these restrictions.

That ‘first week’ of Omicron was manic. An atrocious wave of panic set in, thanks to the 25 November briefing led by South Africa’s top scientists. Multiple mutations, missing spike proteins, and a troublesome lineage made B.1.1.529 sound like a doomsday variant. Well, for about a day or two…

Once the haze of concern had cleared, clinical observations came to the fore. SA Medical Association Chairperson, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, was the first to divert away from the forecast gloom. As a frontline doctor, she had observed a new set of patients coming in with COVID-19.

But none of them were gasping for air. Most, in Coetzee’s professional opinion, didn’t even seem to be truly under the weather. This pattern continued for weeks in her clinic, and by the time Omicron had been identified, the long-serving expert decided the time was right to put her neck on the line.

SAMA’s leading lady did the media rounds, to spread the message that Omicron is, in fact, a much more mild form of the virus.

Omicron is more mild, and that’s what we have been trying to tell you

Her calls were quickly backed up by the CEOs of Mediclinic and Netcare respectively. The likes of Salim Abdool Karim, Tulio de Oliveira, and Shabir Madhi – our top virology experts in SA – also began expressing similar views by the start of December.

Sure enough, these words translated into action: Cases soared first in Gauteng, before spreading elsewhere. However, no hospital in SA has been left overwhelmed by the peak of Omicron cases, as new admissions and ICU requirements remain at reassuringly low levels.

The Omicron wave is strikingly different from the Delta wave. Quite simply, this new variant causes less severe disease, and fewer people require hospital treatment as a result of an Omicron infection. South Africa has spent most of the past month screaming this from the rooftops.

UK ‘cast doubt’ on South Africa’s science

So, we ask, why did the UK not want to believe what Dr. Coetzee was saying? Why were the words of Professor de Oliveira not convincing enough? And why did Britain only consider climbing down from its Omicron hysterics, once the same results were published by the Imperial College of London?

One person’s caution is another’s ignorance. Bizarre claims emerged from the UK’s scientific community in the first few days after Omicron was detected within their borders: Suggestions such as ‘this will cause one million cases a day’ and ‘it has a doubling time of fewer than two days’ came from the very top.

Of course, neither statement seemed to carry much weight or credence. Both have, so far, been proven wrong. But why were people like Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, so determined to ignore the positive signs coming from South Africa?

Those who spend their careers preparing for the worst-case scenarios will always claim they have to work on pessimistic assumptions. But the UK, with its rapid COVID-19 booster programme and high levels of vaccine uptake, seemed all too happy to trash its own success.

Around 90% of Brits got themselves vaccinated in 2021. Roughly 60% of them – tens of millions of citizens – have had their third jabs, too. The wall of immunity built up in Britain, alongside its large rates of previous infections, must dwarf Mzansi’s.

Time for fear is over

Alas, instead of backing the comprehensive science behind booster jabs and their strong efficacy against Omicron, the UK put itself in a tailspin. Both Wales and Scotland have introduced tougher social restrictions, and vaccine passports have been rolled out nationwide.

It just doesn’t make much sense, though. Even with seasonality fixed in for the Brits and their bleak winters, a large number of patients in hospitals are only testing positive for COVID-19 on an incidental basis. ICU beds and ventilator figures remain static.

South Africa told the world this was a milder form of coronavirus weeks ahead of schedule. They were ignored. The top medical professionals in this country were dismissed with an alarming disdain, and although cases continue to rise in Britain, hospitalisations and deaths have not followed at the same pace set during previous waves.

Make no bones about it, South Africa was punished when it alerted the world to Omicron, then ignored when it shared data highlighting the variant’s ‘reduced lethality’. Essentially, when it suited, our science was used to justify travel bans – then disregarded when the time came to de-escalate.

Where did the UK’s Omicron hysteria come from?

Only recently, within the past 72 hours or so, has the rhetoric started to calm in England.

Ans, as a UK-born writer for a South African publication, the last month has left me feeling like I’ve been gaslit. The people whose research formed the entire basis of our pandemic response were being cast as ‘unreliable’, by those in the British government – and its meek media landscape.

Nuts to ’em. The science from SA was never in doubt, and it shouldn’t be treated with such contempt ever again.