COVID-19

COVID-19 Weekly Watch: Omicron worries

Sofia Tomacruz
COVID-19 Weekly Watch: Omicron worries

HOLIDAYS. A giant Christmas tree greets people who are celebrating Christmas day at Luneta Park in Manila on December 25, 2020.

INOUE JAENA/RAPPLER

This week of November 29, 2021, we're watching how Omicron will change the pandemic outlook, the Philippines' plans to reopen, and the vaccine drive in 2022

MANILA, Philippines – Coronavirus cases in the Philippines were back to levels not seen since the early months of the pandemic, after the average number of new cases tallied daily continued to hover in the hundreds. All 17 regions were also at moderate to low risk for COVID-19. 

Among 12 areas health officials were watching closely, Apayao, Ilocos Norte, and South Cotabato were at moderate risk for the virus. 

Here’s what we’re watching this week of November 29, 2021: 

Omicron’s unknowns

It’s a holiday surprise no one wanted, but one the world had been warned about – Omicron, a variant first detected in South Africa, has been designated by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern. It’s the first to be classified as such after the highly transmissible Delta variant wreaked havoc across the world. 

  • Omicron stoked fresh fears of another deadly surge in cases and triggered a new round of travel bans (although some experts and the WHO said this was counterproductive).
  • There’s still a lot that we don’t know about the new variant. Scientists are racing to find more answers on how much more transmissible it might be, how deadly it could be, and to what extent it could affect immunity from vaccines – but it could take some weeks to find out. 
    • What we know so far: Omicron has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein. Scientists say this warrants attention right now, but not to panic. 
  • Still, some countries aren’t waiting to find out. The United Kingdom expanded boosters to all adults, while the United States Centers for Disease Control said all Americans over 18 years old “should” get boosted. 
    • The Philippines is mulling expanding access to boosters to economic frontliners by the end of the year from just health workers and senior citizens. 
  • To a certain extent, we saw this coming, Boghuma Kabisen Titanji told the Atlantic. Titanji is an infectious disease physician, virologist, and global-health expert at Emory University. Omicron’s emergency underscore just how important vaccine equity is. 
    • “All of this means that it is worth having a conversation about whether the slow rollout of vaccines globally has had an impact…. Are we actually giving the virus an opportunity to spread unrestricted in certain places and drive its evolutionary trend? It’s basically exposing ourselves to the emergence of more variants. So this was predictable. If the virus has the opportunity to spread unchecked in the population, then we’re giving it multiple ways in which to evolve and adapt,” Titanji said. 
    • STAT News spoke to experts who described it as a “we told you so” moment.
  • Philippine health officials say it’s “highly likely” Omicron will make its way to country, the same way Delta, Alpha, and Beta have. 
    • While a surge is possible, we’ve learned by now that it’s also very much preventable. 
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Second thoughts

Omicron’s emergence was ominous enough to prompt Philippine officials to reconsider plans for a long-awaited reopening. Key officials from the economic cluster of the Duterte administration held onto hopes that areas in the country, including Metro Manila, could see even looser restrictions by the holiday season, after over two years of being under stricter quarantine rules. 

  • Transitioning to Alert Level 1 would have essentially ushered in a “new normal.” Instead, the status quo will prevail in Metro Manila – at least until December 15
  • “Right now, considering that we have this variant, it will change everything. So we will need to have a recalibration and most likely, what we will do again what we did previously for Delta,” National Task Force Chief Implementer and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said.
  • Experts and health officials are preparing models to study the potential impact of Omicron on prevailing protocols of the government task force.
  • In the meantime, local governments were told to be on high alert for any increasing and clustering of cases in their communities, while hospitals were told to start reinforcing resources. 
2022 vaccine plans

The Philippines is in talks with vaccine manufacturers for potential deals to acquire an initial 90 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in 2022. The amount will mostly cover boosters, while “more or less 70 million doses” ordered in 2021 will be carried over for use in 2022. 

  • Some of the drug firms the Philippines is in talks with include Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and the Gamaleya Research Institute. 
  • The government plans to use the same financing scheme to pay for doses: partly funded by loans from multilateral development banks and partly funded by the national budget. 
  • The government will also remain open to tripartite deals where local governments or private business pools orders. 
Kids’ turn

The government is also optimistic kids aged 5 to 11 years old could become eligible for the vaccine as early as by the end of 2021, if not in January 2022. 

  • Galvez says the country has asked vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer to apply for emergency approval for the group. Currently, only Pfizer’s shot has been approved for emergency use in the United States. 
  • The country has already ordered 20 million more doses of Pfizer’s shot it intends to use as boosters and first and second doses for pediatric vaccinations. 
  • Having more children become eligible can see millions more children getting protected against the virus and bring the country’s vaccine coverage closer to its target of vaccinating 90% of the country’s 110 million population. 

Don’t miss this: A three-day nationwide vaccine drive is currently ongoing and will last until Wednesday, December 1. All individuals at least 12 years old and above are eligible to get vaccinated. 

With the threat of Omicron, the coming holiday season, and availability of vaccines, now is as good a time as any to get your COVID-19 shot. All workers from the public and private sector have the leeway to leave work, walk-ins are welcome, and multigenerational households are sought for the massive drive. 

Check out this walk through in a vaccination site in Quezon City for what to expect: 

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– Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.