The coronavirus is back with vengeance. It has not really left the world but the number of people getting infected declined sharply until a new variant was detected in South Africa in November.
By December, the new variant, known as B.1.1.529 or Omicron, had spread to more than 80 countries around the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) later said the Omicron variant was likely present in most countries, whether they had detected it or not.
In the Philippines, 10 cases have been recorded — three local cases and seven imported cases. The imported cases were brought by travelers, including a woman who had arrived from the United States, broke quarantine protocols, and partied in Makati.
But social media posts were flooded by people experiencing flu-like symptoms, forcing them to rush to drug stores to buy paracetamol, which caused an artificial shortage.
Health experts warned that the Omicron variant was more contagious than the original SARS-CoV-2 that originated from China and other variants, like the more deadly Delta, which could land people in hospitals and possibly lead to death.
Dr. Robert Malone, an American virologist, said the reproduction number of Omicron was higher than Delta, infecting an estimated 8-10 persons, which could be similar to a measles outbreak in an area.
Malone said Omicron spreads faster but is milder than Delta because it only affects the upper respiratory system. He said the virus attacks the bronchi or the passageways to the lungs from the trachea.
But he was concerned about Omicron’s virulence because of its high reproduction number. The reproduction number or R-naught is a mathematical term that indicates how contagious the virus that causes the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) is.
If the R-naught is less than 1, it could mean the virus is infecting less people and will eventually die down. If the R-naught is 1, the virus will stay alive and stable but there won’t be an outbreak or epidemic. But if the R-naught has a higher figure, there could be an outbreak and an epidemic.
For nearly two years, the R-naught for the virus causing Covid-19 remained high, which resulted in a spread of pandemic proportions. By the end of 2021, more than 293 million people in 222 countries around the world had been infected by the virus, and the death toll topped 5.4 million.
In 1918, the Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people but the R-naught of the swine flu was only between 1.4 and 2.8.
When it came back in 2009, the H1N1 was less contagious and deadly and the R-naught was only between 1.4 and 1.6. The existence of vaccines and antiviral drugs made the 2009 outbreak much less deadly.
Perhaps, the more advanced prevention and treatment protocols have made the SARS-CoV-2 and its variants less deadly, but the new Omicron variant could be a game changer because it is the most contagious.
The WHO and medical experts said the extremely high rate of spread, combined with its ability to evade both double vaccination and the body’s immune system, meant that the total number of infected persons requiring hospital care at any given time was still of great concern.
Research published in London on Christmas day found that the most frequent symptoms were a runny nose, headaches, fatigue, sneezing, and sore throats. Omicron’s unique symptom is night sweats.
Scientists are also worried Omicron has 60 mutations that could reduce immunity in people. Many Filipinos are showing these symptoms but they think it’s just the ordinary flu as colder weather sets in. It is best for everyone to have themselves tested if they experience flu-like symptoms.
Sadly, the Duterte government has not been aggressively testing people. In fact the number of tested individuals went down to 18,587 people on Monday. But the positivity rate was a high of 20.7 percent, resulting in a daily infection average of 4,084.
If the government tested more, there would be more than 4,000 Covid-19 cases with a positivity of about 20 percent. Last year, the government was testing 60,000 to 70,000 people every day.
The Department of Health (DoH) is also counting only those who turned positive in the RT-PCR test, the gold standard in testing Covid-19. But many people are also testing positive in the much cheaper and faster antigen tests.
The coronavirus figures that the DoH has been releasing every day is totally unreliable not only because most of the data are old and some of those reported healed turned out to have died.
For nearly two years, the Philippines has not improved its data reporting system. There are huge backlogs because of delayed reporting by many private laboratories.
It also lacked efficient and effective contract tracing after funds to hire contact tracers dried up, making it hard for the government to locate close contacts of people who had tested positive for the virus. Delays in contacting these people could also mean a delay in responses to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Philippine Genome Center is not sequencing enough samples to get a clearer picture of the situation. It lacks manpower, equipment and reagents to determine how many of the Covid-19 cases have Delta or the new Omicron. Only 10 cases were found but there could be more as the new variant was less deadly than the Delta variant.
People just stay home to isolate themselves, but many go to hospitals, which could overwhelm the healthcare system.
The country’s overall biosurveillance is weak. The administration and lawmakers are more concerned with funding projects that would help elect themselves to positions in May rather than fund the devolved healthcare system.
Nearly two years after the first Covid-19 cases were detected in the country, it appears the Philippines is back to square one.
However, there is a silver lining to Omicron. If it spreads fast and the majority of Filipinos are infected, there is a chance the population will get natural immunity and if the variant is less deadly, many will survive until the next variant comes out.