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Opinion

Omicron

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Now we know what “endemic” means.

It is not only that the virus hangs around in the environment, possibly for eternity. It is also that the virus constantly mutates, defying our defenses and provoking spikes in infections from time to time.

It is not only the COVID-19 virus that mutates, often to devastating effect. All viruses mutate. This is why flu shots are done intermittently, using updated vaccines.

The Delta variant of this virus proved particularly destructive. It caused a deadly surge in India and Indonesia. The same variant caused the third and most severe wave of infections here.

Just over two weeks ago, South African scientists documented a new variant with 32 mutations over the previous known variants. Information about this variant was communicated immediately to the WHO and eventually relayed to all governments.

WHO gave this variant its Latin designation a few days ago. The variant is now called “Omicron.” In the two weeks since it was documented, this variant spread to a score of countries.

A passenger infected with the variant landed in Hong Kong from South Africa. Even while on quarantine, he managed to infect the person confined across the corridor in the isolation hotel. Both persons were fully vaccinated.

Over the weekend, Dutch authorities detected 13 infected persons in a flight from South Africa. The variant caused infections in Israel, the country with the highest vaccination rates.

We still do not know enough of the Omicron variant, although early indications point to a high rate of transmissibility. The WHO will probably need another week to be able to fully describe the characteristics of this new variant. An article circulating in social media claiming this new variant had milder effects was denounced as fake news.

Even as scientists are still studying this new variant, it is clearly a development of serious concern. Its apparent global spread spooked the stock markets last Friday, causing a dip across the board. Several governments have blocked travel from eight countries in southern Africa.

Before this new variant was documented, the Philippines was well on its way towards containing COVID-19 infections. While our numbers are still mercifully falling, and no Omicron case has yet been found here, the new variant will probably force a pause in the relaxation of restrictions.

We had hoped, for instance, the NCR and many provinces would be downgraded to Alert Level 1 by the onset of December. That is not likely going to happen. The doctors who advise the IATF have always been conservative since the start of the pandemic. Now they are advising government to delay any downgrade of restriction levels. The greater peril at this point is overreaction.

Spooked

The overreaction is hardly surprising. The world is now on its fourth wave of this pandemic, the third driven by the Delta variant being the deadliest so far.

The emergence of the Omicron variant sent a wave of panic across the globe. This almost seems straight out of Groundhog Day, an endless repetition of the curse.

So spooked were our own pandemic managers that they considered closing our borders to Hong Kong after a single passenger from South Africa was found infected with the Omicron variant. He subsequently infected another person in the same quarantine hotel absent any contact between the two.

Of course, we closed down our borders to travelers coming from eight southern African countries. This might be academic at this point. The variant is quickly spreading across Europe. Living up to its reputation for zealousness, Israel closed its borders to all travelers, wherever they might be coming from.

The overreaction raises the specter of the world returning to where it was in the second quarter of 2020. All borders were closed except for repatriation flights undertaken by governments.

Should we go through this sort of shotgun response to halt the spread of a variant, we will likely succeed only in shooting down all prospects for economic recovery. Last year’s border shutdowns did not prevent the virus from spreading. What they did was to prevent commerce from continuing.

Nearly two years into this pandemic crisis, we have learned enough about how to deal with new variants. Unless the Omicron variant is proven to be capable of breaking through vaccine-induced defenses, we should continue pushing ahead with the vaccination program while relaxing restrictions to enable the economy to breathe.

For better or for worse, our economy is driven by consumption and dependent on tourism. Lockdown restrictions crippled our growth drivers. This produced the deep recession that harmed millions.

With the mechanisms for testing, tracking and treating we already have in place, we do not need to return to lockdowns to contain a new infection risk. Our response to the Omicron variant should not be based on fear. It should be based in confidence we have the ability to isolate and suppress any outbreak in infections.

We have science on our side. The mRNA-based vaccines are ultimately based on a computer code that may be altered as soon as new variants threaten their efficacy.

Our pandemic response has been effective. Whatever flaw this response may have has been due to a prevalent tendency to err on the side of caution.

Because our pandemic response has worked, the whole country is now in Alert Level 2 status – even if by the DOH’s own measures, we should be ready to downgrade further. The slower infection rate and lower hospital utilization rates provide us enough headroom to absorb the effects of a new variant.

The worst we could do now is panic.

COVID-19
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