COVID-19 Crisis: Philippines monitoring coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 (Omicron variant)

News about the new and more infectious coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 – also referred to as the Omicron variant – that reportedly originated in South Africa dominated the news cycles this past weekend and already the authorities here in the Philippines are monitoring it, according to a recent Philippine News Agency (PNA) report.

Before proceeding with the PNA’s news report, let’s take a close look as to what exactly is coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 or Omicron variant according to the World Health Organization (WHO) which published an article (published November 26, 2021) about it. The excerpt is pasted below and some parts in boldface…

The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.

This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.

There are a number of studies underway and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with Member States and to the public as needed.

Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron.

As such, countries are asked to do the following:

  • enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.
  • submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.
  • report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.
  • where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.

Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.

As mentioned earlier, the Philippines is paying close attention to the Omicron variant. To put things in perspective, posted below is an excerpt from the PNA article. Some parts in boldface…

The Philippine government is monitoring the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 that already has cases in South Africa, acting Presidential spokesperson and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said Friday.

During the Palace briefing, Nograles said members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) and the Department of Health (DOH) are widely aware of the variant described by experts as “heavily mutated”.

“We are monitoring — intently monitoring — itong situation na ito. Patuloy pa rin po ang ginagwa nating (We are monitoring — intently monitoring — this situation. We continue to conduct our) genomic surveillance on the ground,” Nograles said in an interview.

He added the government is constantly exchanging information with the World Health Organization about the possible threat of the newly detected variant.

We are waiting their advisories kung ito bang variant na ito (if this variant) is considered a variant of interest or a variant of concern,” Nograles said.

Dana Krizia Sandoval, spokesperson of the Bureau of Immigration, said in another interview that various systems are in place once the IATF sees the need to adjust the travel restrictions caused by emerging Covid-19 variants.

“Kapag may directive po ang IATF na kailangan pong baguhin, immediately po kaya po nating i-implement and we have the sufficient manpower naman po para tugunan po itong mga pangangailangan na ito (Once the IATF gives its directive to change it, we will immediately implement it and we have sufficient manpower to augment these needs),” she added.

Sandoval said they are strictly enforcing health protocols and social distancing measures in all entry and exit points to make sure that travelers are safe when passing through the immigration area.

The above report ended stating that there have been confirmed cases of Omicron variant in South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.

While the Omicron news published are scary and unsettling to learn about, it should be noted that there are still ways for the Philippines to prevent the new variant from entering the country even though the national authorities are constantly working as people of different nationalities enter, exit or pass through our nation via air travel.

As the Omicron variant was found to be much more infectious than the previous variants of coronavirus, now is a much more crucial time for every unvaccinated person here in the Philippines to go out and get vaccinated. That being said, the patients who are due for a 2nd dose of their vaccine should contact the local authorities to ask when will they be scheduled for the 2nd shot. As for the fully vaccinated, watch out for updates about the release of booster shots for more patients apart from the already receiving senior citizens, the health workers and immunocompromised. For anyone vaccinated already enjoying the added freedom of movement and the ongoing revival of businesses under Metro Manila’s Alert Level 2 status (extended to November 30, 2021), always maintain caution by following health protocols.

As the many secular and liberal media outlets around the world enjoy publishing scary news about Omicron, we who believe in Lord Jesus should not panic nor allow ourselves to be crushed by fear. For His protection, I urge you all to pray to Him with Psalm 91 in the Holy Bible. Maintain unwavering faith in the Lord no matter what.

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