Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, said she had first encountered the variant in a man in his early thirties. She said he was experiencing tiredness and a mild headache, but none of the usual coronavirus symptoms.
She said: “What we are seeing clinically in South Africa, and remember I’m at the epicentre – that’s where I’m practising – it’s extremely mild. For us, that’s mild cases.”
Asked if the UK was “panicking unnecessarily”, she said: “I think you already have it there in your country and you’re not knowing it, and I would say, yes, at this stage I would say definitely.
“Two weeks from now maybe we will say something different.”
Dr Coetzee’s comments came after it was announced that two cases of the omicron variant had been confirmed in England.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s health minister, Joe Phaahla, said on Sunday that the travel restrictions placed on his country were “uncalled for”.
Speaking on LBC radio, he claimed that the measures would not prevent the spread of the virus and instead suggested regular testing and mask-wearing as a means of preventing a surge of infections.
He told the radio station that he had heard from medical professionals in his country that young, unvaccinated people had been admitted to hospital with the variant form of Covid-19.
Dr Phaahla also said that, anecdotally, cases of the new variant had been “mild” and mostly in the young, for whom vaccination rates are relatively low in South Africa.
Asked about the UK’s decision to add South Africa and some other African nations to the red list for international travel, he said the travel restrictions were “very unfortunate and uncalled for”.
“We’ve been here before,” he said, adding: “We’ve seen in practice that it doesn’t work.
“The US did that in the beginning of Covid-19 ... and many other countries followed ... but in the end, throughout the various waves of Covid-19, we’ve come to terms with the fact that even by the time we were informed by the scientists of this variant, it was gone, it was already everywhere.”
His comments follow a call held by Boris Johnson with South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, on Friday.
Dr Phaahla said: “When he [President Ramaphosa] reported to us about that discussion, he did indicate that he expressed our view that we believe this is uncalled for ... it’s a futile exercise in a way. Very much a false sense of security, which is not going to help.”
Asked if young unvaccinated people were ending up in hospital with the new variant in South Africa, Dr Phaahla said: “Yes. Younger, unvaccinated people ... 65 per cent of those they’ve admitted, who are mainly younger people, are actually those who are unvaccinated.”
Asked what he knew about the severity of illness in those who have the new strain, Dr Phaahla said: “It is still too early at this stage. Some of what I’ve read from some of our clinicians has been that thus far they have not witnessed severe illness. Part of it may be because the majority of those who are positive are young people.”
He said he had heard from GPs that the “majority of the people they’ve been seeing are mild”, but stressed this was “not proper research”. He added that, at this stage, it is not known what proportion of the younger people who have omicron are ending up in hospital.
In addition, Dr Phaahla said that wealthier countries like the UK “definitely” needed to provide more vaccine doses to countries in Africa.