‘Celebrate Pasko’

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Nearly two years after COVID-19 hit the Philippines, President Duterte has discovered the appeal of OCTA Research.

During his weekly report to the nation last Monday, Duterte and his pandemic response officials were so impressed by the presentation of OCTA fellow Fr. Nicanor Austriaco that they applauded at the end of his briefing.

Duterte was so captivated that he offered Father Nic the post of secretary of health, saying the current holder of the post, Francisco Duque, surely would not mind.

Duque, who was at the briefing, later said he served at the pleasure of the President. Father Nic managed to get out of the awkward situation with grace – and he even led in a prayer, upon request, seeking the country’s deliverance from COVID.

Has Duterte belatedly found religion? He certainly has found Father Nic, the Dominican priest who shuttles between the University of Sto. Tomas and Providence College in Rhode Island as a professor of theology and molecular biology.

Congressmen must be aghast; they had earlier grilled the OCTA fellows about the group’s background, funding and methodology. Several congressmen afflicted with publicity envy also openly advised us in the mainstream media to stop playing up every OCTA projection on COVID trends. The congressmen challenged the science behind the group’s statements.

We explained that the projections – consistently and frighteningly accurate since the start of the pandemic – didn’t come from a crystal ball, and the most prominent number cruncher in the group, Guido David, is a mathematics professor in the University of the Philippines.

As for the science, isn’t molecular biology scientific enough? Father Nic is hard at work developing a yeast-based COVID vaccine. Instead of a congressional grilling, he should be getting support for his groundbreaking R&D. At least the Department of Science and Technology has acknowledged his expertise and made him a Balik Scientist.

Obviously, no one briefed Duterte about Father Nic’s background. But the President was impressed enough, undoubtedly because Father Nic, apart from delivering his report with his trademark clarity and eloquence, had a message of hope amid the fear now being generated by the Omicron variant.

*      *      *

Until I watched Father Nic’s presentation, I myself thought that for the second year in a row, the Grinch that stole Christmas 2020 looks set to do it again this year.

While daily COVID cases remain below 1,000 nationwide and a combination of carrot and stick is raising the vaccination rate considerably, Omicron is threatening to ruin the holiday spirit.

Scientists have already said it would take at least two more weeks before they can say with certainty if the latest COVID variant of concern is more transmissible and virulent than previous SARS-CoV-2 strains, notably Delta, which is blamed for the ongoing fourth COVID wave in Europe.

So far, there has been no Omicron case detected among the travelers who have arrived in the Philippines from abroad before border controls were tightened anew due to Omicron.

There’s one piece of good news: the Philippine Genome Center has doubled its capacity. It can now sequence 1,500 samples per week, from the previous 750, according to Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.

She told “The Chiefs” on One News last Monday that this capacity is good enough for “purposive” genome sequencing. No country, she stresses, can sequence samples from all inbound travelers.

If Omicron behaves like the previous variants, however, it can take a bit longer before it is detected and begins spreading in the country.

OCTA’s Guido David says in the worst case scenario, an Omicron surge may occur by January.

He stresses though that unlike in Christmas 2020, COVID vaccines are here. If people would continue adhering to pandemic safety protocols, a surge could be averted even if Omicron enters the country (as it inevitably would, according to the Department of Health).

Vergeire has a similar message. While the world waits for definitive scientific assessment of the level of threat posed by Omicron, she says people should restrain themselves in their holiday celebrations.

In my case, I’m still avoiding in-person meetings. My caution is partly because I personally know some of the 49,591 (as of yesterday) COVID fatalities in our country.

*      *      *

Father Nic has a more positive outlook.

He presented charts showing that the Philippines in recent days has registered a considerable drop in COVID cases while neighbors such as Vietnam are seeing a surge.

Father Nic attributed this to the fact that the Philippines experienced two surges earlier this year, way ahead of Vietnam, which had such low COVID numbers for much of the past two years. The low infection meant a weaker incentive to get vaccinated.

Infection provides a measure of natural immunity, and over 2.8 million Filipinos have already caught COVID. So compared with our neighbors in Southeast Asia, we’re way ahead; we’ve been there, done that.

With natural immunity and the immunity obtained from vaccination, Father Nic says the infection numbers and other indicators point to the attainment of “population immunity” against COVID.

Continuing the vaccination rate and sustaining compliance with pandemic health protocols, he says, must be complemented with the procurement of antiviral drugs such as molnupiravir, for the unfortunate critical cases who land in the hospital.

“This would transform pandemic COVID-19 into endemic COVID-19,” Father Nic concluded.

Finally… a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Now you know why everyone applauded after his presentation, and Duterte wanted to replace his health chief. I don’t think it was a complete joke.

For all of us fretting about Omicron, Father Nic also provides holiday cheer.

“This is not the time to panic. This is the time to be careful,” he said. “Let us celebrate Pasko.”

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