Here we go again?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Sumptuous hotel buffets have reopened. Some people I know have booked trips to Boracay with their families – a first for them since the pandemic.

Now people are asking the experts if it’s safe to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normal amid the threat posed by the newest COVID-19 variant, Omicron.

A special meeting was called at Malacañang last Monday, with a larger participation of doctors.

In the course of the meeting, President Duterte said he could invoke his powers as chief executive to make vaccination mandatory. He also expressed openness to restoring the mandatory use of face shields in public places – a move backed by Health Secretary Francisco Duque and several health professionals, but considered unnecessary against Omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO)’s country representative.

Over the weekend, the government had already suspended the Dec. 1 reopening of the country to fully vaccinated tourists from non-visa countries in the so-called green list of places with low COVID risk.

Several European countries were also added to the red list of African states whose nationals are temporarily banned from entering the Philippines, until the world can get a clearer picture of the threat posed by Omicron.

The ban, however, came too late for three Filipinos who arrived from South Africa last Friday. Although fully vaccinated and with negative COVID test results, the three have been re-swabbed and are under isolation after flying to Negros.

The government has held off on adding Hong Kong to the red list, even if it already has three confirmed Omicron cases. Instead Hong Kong has been moved to the “yellow list” – meaning the Filipino workers expected to be coming home in droves for Christmas, or Filipino travelers transiting through the Chinese administrative region, will have to undergo facility quarantine.

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The pandemic team’s emergency mode must have been fueled by the unusually quick declaration of Omicron as a “variant of concern” by the WHO, so soon after the spread of the latest variant was reported by South Africa.

The equally swift reaction of Israel – to close its borders to foreign travelers from all countries – with Japan following suit on Monday, must have contributed to the emergency mode at Malacañang. Japan has recorded its first Omicron case. Canada and Australia were among the countries that also reported cases yesterday.

Scientists have said it could take three weeks before they can determine with certainty if Omicron, with at least 30 mutations on its spike protein, is more transmissible and virulent than Delta, whose rampage isn’t even over yet.

A fourth wave that has forced a return to lockdowns in parts of Europe is being attributed to Delta combined with the significant easing of restrictions and vaccine resistance. The US is also grappling with a Delta wave.

Apart from tightening restrictions anew, the common response to the Delta wave is to expand vaccination to include boosters, third doses and pediatric jabs for kids as young as 5 (in China, it’s age 3).

Several countries including the US are also implementing various degrees of vaccine mandates in both the government and private sector. So President Duterte will have a lot of company if he forges ahead with his plan to make vaccination mandatory.

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The WHO is not recommending border controls; health experts seem to believe the global spread of COVID variants is inevitable.

If we don’t close our borders, however, we must have an efficient system of isolation upon arrival, testing, contact tracing and genome sequencing.

I don’t think there has been any upgrade in the capability, impressive as it is, of the Philippine Genome Center to sequence only 750 samples a week, with the results becoming available only after a few days.

As for contact tracing, it’s a joke and a national disaster.

So our choices in delaying the entry of Omicron boil down to two: closing our borders to certain countries, and requiring facility quarantine even for fully vaccinated travelers upon arrival.

Even if travelers arriving in the country are fully vaccinated, Delta has been responsible for breakthrough infections, and the WHO is worried that Omicron poses a high risk of reinfection.

A delay in reopening plans is all that healthcare workers are asking for, so they can have time to prepare for another possible COVID surge. They are aware of the need to save livelihoods and the mental health of those being driven up the wall by pandemic cabin fever.

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Dr. Rontgene Solante, infectious disease specialist and a member of the Vaccine Expert Panel, says the policy on easing mobility for minors should also be reviewed.

He advises those who are eligible to get boosters, even as scientists rush to determine if existing vaccines, designed to immunize against the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, can work against Omicron.

The worry among scientists that Omicron, with its multiple mutations on the spike protein, is looking like an entirely different pathogen from the original contributed to the extreme concern attached by the WHO to the latest variant.

Solante also echoed the warning of experts, that even with a high vaccination rate in a particular area such as Metro Manila, the presence of many unvaccinated travelers or transient workers can create more virus mutations. On One News’ “The Chiefs” last Monday, he told us there is always the possibility that the mutations can be as infectious or virulent – meaning it can cause critical infection and death – as Delta.

The pharmaceutical giants are rushing to test if their vaccines also work against Omicron. They previously determined that their vaccines’ efficacy waned slightly against Delta, which was why they recommended boosters and third doses.

Pfizer is reported to be rushing a vaccine against Omicron. Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund behind Gamaleya Research Center’s development of the Sputnik V and Sputnik Lite COVID jabs, told The Chiefs last week that Gamaleya is already hard at work on Omicron.

Like other vaccine makers, however, the earliest results from the Gamaleya study are expected in three weeks.

During that period, health experts are urging everyone to err on the side of caution.

Because of Omicron, Christmas 2021 might not become as merry as people had hoped, but safety from COVID infection should bring happiness in the new year.

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