Omicron variant

[OPINION] Managing the BA.4/BA.5 wave in the Philippines

Nicanor Austriaco Jr.
[OPINION] Managing the BA.4/BA.5 wave in the Philippines

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As long as we protect our most vulnerable citizens, offer booster shots to our population, and buffer our hospital system to prevent it from being overwhelmed, we should allow this BA.4/BA.5 wave simply to pass. This is the new normal.

The increasing number of daily cases in the National Capital Region and in the country suggests that a wave/surge of COVID-19 is developing in the Philippines that is driven primarily by the BA.4/BA.5 subvariants that were first detected in South Africa, in a Filipino population with waning immunity. How high and how long will this wave be? What should we expect? Should we increase our pandemic alert levels in response to this wave?

The COVID-19 pandemic experience of South Africa, which has been good at predicting what could happen here in the Philippines, suggests that this wave should be lower than the BA.2 wave in January.  In South Africa, the Omicron BA.2 wave peaked at around 24,000 cases per day earlier this year, while the BA.4/BA.5 peaked at around 8,000 new cases per day. It took about two to three weeks for the surge to peak and the cases have been dropping since. Most importantly, however, neither hospitalizations nor deaths from COVID-19 rose to critical levels in South Africa. Subsequently its government did not have to increase or adjust pandemic alert levels. They simply allowed the wave to pass.

Though our experience with the BA.4/BA.5 will not exactly mirror the experience in South Africa – especially since the Philippines has vaccinated 65% of our population while South Africa has only been able to vaccinate around 30% of its people – the data suggests that our emerging surge will be relatively mild. It is unlikely that this variant will drive a critical number of patients into our hospitals. It is unlikely that this wave will trigger a significant number of deaths.

Indeed, there is recent data from the USA that confirms that Omicron is milder than Delta by a substantial number of hospitalizations and deaths. Moreover, a report from the Financial Times indicates that COVID-19 is now less deadly than the seasonal flu for most people in England because of vaccines and the Omicron variant. Though a similar study has not yet been done in the Philippines, we can expect a similar result given our high rate of vaccinations, especially in our urban areas that are most prone to COVID-19. Nonetheless, what this means is that for the vast majority of Filipinos who will get sick with BA.4 or BA.5, their illness will be a relatively mild form of COVID-19, that should last only a few days with cold-like and flu-like symptoms.

How then should we respond to this emerging BA.4/BA.5 wave? First, we must continue to encourage our kababayans to get vaccinated and boosted. This is important especially for our HCWs, our senior citizens, and those who are most vulnerable to serious illness. Second, we must remind them that wearing a high-quality mask, especially a N95 mask, is best at protecting them from infection. Third, we must stockpile our anti-viral COVID-19 drugs like molnupiravir and paxlovid in our hospitals, especially in regions with low vaccination coverage, and ensure that those most at risk for serious disease have easy access to these life-saving medications in the event that they do get infected with SARS-CoV2.

Ideally, we should also expand access to second boosters for those who are 50 years old and older, just as they do in the USA. What is important is to empower the individual Filipino to take responsibility for his or her own health and the well-being of his or her family.

But should we increase our alert level? In my view, this is not necessary. In fact, the costs of such a move on the economy would not be justified. As long as we protect our most vulnerable citizens, offer booster shots to our population, and buffer our hospital system to prevent it from being overwhelmed, we should allow this BA.4/BA.5 wave simply to pass. This is the new normal. This is what it means to say that we are living with COVID-19.

There are even epidemiologists who point out that these waves of mild disease can serve to booster the population among those who do not want to be boostered, rebuilding our immunity walls against future infections. Though this is not ideal, because it is never ideal to get sick when vaccines and boosters are available to prevent infection, their observations are on point.

In the end, we are used to waves of flu that wash over our islands every year. We should now become accustomed to waves of COVID-19 doing the same, until a pan-coronavirus vaccine is developed that should help us substantially mitigate the disease. As the pandemic continues to recede into history, this is not a time for fear. It is a time for hope. It is a time for thanksgiving. – Rappler.com

Rev. Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., Ph.D. is a Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Sacred Theology at the University of Santo Tomas, and an OCTA Research Fellow.