On Nov. 28, 2021, Gateway Pundit, among other far-right news and opinion outlets, published a story about the omicron COVID-19 variant and Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the chair of the South African Medical Association. The headline for the brief, 59-word article read: "UPDATE: South African Doctor Who Discovered 'Omicron' Variant Says There’s Nothing to Worry About – Only Mild Symptoms (VIDEO)." A similar headline from The True Defender read: "The South African Doctor Which Discovered Omicron Says There’s Nothing To Worry About!"
Omicron was the name chosen for a variant of COVID-19 after it was first detected by Coetzee in South Africa in November 2021.
The Gateway Pundit cited a Telegram account named Tommy Robinson News. On Telegram, the message was captioned as follows: "South African doctor who discovered 'Omicron variant' says there's nothing to worry about, only has very mild symptoms." It also included a video from Coetzee's Nov. 28 appearance on the BBC's "The Andrew Marr Show."
We took a look at what Coetzee actually said and compared it with what these outlets reported and with other data available from credible sources around the world.
As of this writing, the complete Nov. 28 interview between Marr, the BBC presenter, and Coetzee does not appear to be available online in the U.S. However, we did locate a full transcript from the episode:
Marr (BBC): Around the world scientists are pouring over every single scrap of new data about the variant causing such concern. Earlier this morning I spoke to two people on the front line of that research. Dr. Paul Burton, the Medical Director of the vaccine maker Moderna, who as he told me, is already working on a new booster for Omicron, but first to Dr. Angelique Coetzee, Chair of the South African Medical Association and the doctor who spotted this first.
Dr. Coetzee: What happened is round about the 18th of November I all of a sudden encountered you know unusual symptoms with actually started with a male patient that’s around the age of 33, 31 round about. And I never, you know, very seldom visit the surgery and it seemed to me it was extremely tired for the past two days and he’s got this body aches and pains with a bit of a headache. Not really sore throat, more a scratchy type of description and no cough and no loss of smell or taste. And because it’s unusual for that specific person to present with type of symptoms I decided to test. We do rapid testing in our surgeries and it was positive. I then tested the rest of his family and it was all positive. Every one of them very, very mild symptoms and that is what you call mild symptoms. And then for the rest of the day I actually saw more patients coming in with the same sort of symptoms that all tested positive. I alerted the Advisory Committee of the Minister on the vaccines because I’m part of that committee and that’s why it’s easy for me to say to them, listen, something is wrong. I have seen today a picture that doesn’t fit in with Delta and then the beginning of this past week it came out that this is the new variant going around. So what we are seeing clinically in South Africa and remember, I’m at the epicentre, that’s where I’m practising, is extremely mild. For us that’s mild cases. We haven’t admitted anyone. I spoke to other colleagues of mine, the same picture.
Marr (BBC): So do you think that we in Britain, in the United States, in Israel, in Europe, do you think we’re all panicking unnecessarily?
Dr. Coetzee: I think you already have it there in your country. You’re not even knowing it. And I would say yes, at this stage I would say definitely. Two weeks from now on maybe we will say something different.
Marr (BBC): You suggested just a moment ago that it may be seeded in the UK already some way back and we may simply not have not noticed.
Dr. Coetzee: Yes. Definitely, because you are seeing a lot of Delta cases. Remember we had the break. We had about 8 to 10 weeks break between out last wave and this new variant coming onto the market now and so for us to easily see there’s something different, it’s easy. Your doctors might be more focused on the Delta symptoms and missing this because it’s easy to miss this. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had not seen the really Covid cases this past few weeks we would have also missed it.
Marr (BBC): That was very very interesting. Dr. Coetzee thank you so much for talking to us.
During the BBC interview, Coetzee said that the omicron variant might already be present in other countries. She also said that there was no reason to panic "at this stage," referring to what was known about the variant as of Nov. 28. However, nowhere during the interview did Coetzee say or imply that there would be "nothing to worry about" in terms of what we might see in the future from the omicron variant.
In an interview with VICE News that was published on Nov. 29, Coetzee discussed the issue of overhyping the variant before medical professionals could learn more about it:
"From the clinician side, we think it's premature," Coetzee told VICE News. "We're not saying it's never going to be a huge crisis going forward; we're just saying that there is not enough information going around on this variant."
Scientists, the WHO, and vaccine makers have all said it will be at least a week before they have a clearer picture of what kind of threat Omicron poses.
"It is mild, at this stage, but if you're suffering from symptoms, go and see a medical practitioner," said Coetzee, who has seen the variant mostly present in younger populations. "If you stay at home and you give this to your 60-year-old mother who's not been vaccinated, and she dies, then that will be on your conscience."
Coetzee's statement that "we're not saying it's never going to be a huge crisis going forward" once again demonstrated how misleading it was to claim she said there is "nothing to worry about."
Biden and Fauci
U.S. President Joe Biden and his chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also urged caution about omicron, as it was still too early to know much about the variant.
On Nov. 29, NPR reported that Biden called the omicron variant a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic."
Fauci told CBS News that it was too early to know what was likely to happen in the future. He said there had been signs that the omicron variant might be "more transmissible" and that it could possibly be able to evade safeguards and treatments:
Well, it's going to take a little bit, maybe a couple of weeks to get a real good handle on it.
The thing that we do know that is concerning is that there has been this identification in South Africa, and it is having a degree of what we call mutations around that part of the virus, we call the spike protein, that is responsible for the binding of the virus to cells in your body, which suggests that this would be more transmissible, and also suggests that it might evade some of the immune parameters that we have such as monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma, as well as perhaps antibodies that are induced by vaccines.
When you look at it clinically, it appears from what we're observing with our South African colleagues, who have been extremely cooperative and helpful to us to understand this, it appears to be spreading very readily and that it has a transmission advantage. The things that we don't know right now are whether the people who do get infected have a severer form of the disease or whether it's a light disease or somewhat the same as delta.
This data from Fauci was in line with the findings of the World Health Organization (WHO). According to The Associated Press, the WHO said that "the global risk from the omicron variant is 'very high' based on early evidence and that the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with 'severe consequences.'"
In sum, the "nothing to worry about" line that was misleadingly attributed to Coetzee in reference to omicron appeared to be another attempt to downplay COVID-19, a deadly pandemic that has already taken the lives of more than 5.2 million people worldwide.