MANILA — Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Monday warned that the entry of the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant is a matter of when, and not if.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said earlier on Monday that the Omicron variant is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges that could have "severe consequences" in some places.
President Rodrigo Duterte, in a meeting with the National Task Force on COVID-19, asked health experts: "Is there a possibility that the Omicron will visit the Philippines?"
"Yes, sir," replied Duque. "It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when."
He said the country must intensify its PDITR or prevent, detect, isolate, treat, reintegrate strategies.
Authorities must also take advantage of the currently low COVID-19 figures to boost the health system, Duque said.
"It is important that we continue to strengthen and prepare the healthcare system for the worst case scenario, in case there’s going to be a sustained high community transmission on account of this possible Omicron variant entering our country," he said.
The health chief said authorities also "need to really widen and increase the vaccination coverage to reach population protection."
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Government is studying the possibility of giving booster shots by December to essential workers who completed their vaccination at least 6 months go, said task force chief implementer Carlito Galvez Jr.
"Pwede namin itong i-open sa mga taong kailangang mabakunahan na kasi nakita natin 'yung Omicron na nasa Europe na, at expected nating baka dumating dito one to two months from now,” he said in an online interview on Monday.
(We can open this to people who need to get vaccinated because we see that the Omicron variant has spread to Europe, and we expect it to arrive here in one to 2 months from now.)
The Philippines this month started giving booster shots to health workers, immunocompromised people, and the elderly.
At least 35.6 million of the country's 109 million population have completed their COVID-19 vaccination so far.
WHAT THE WHO SAYS
No Omicron-linked deaths had yet been reported, though further research was needed to assess its potential to resist vaccines and immunity induced by previous infections, the WHO said.
Anticipating increased case numbers as the variant, first reported last week, spreads, the UN agency urged its 194 member states to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups.
"Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic," the WHO said.
"The overall global risk ...is assessed as very high."
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said Omicron's emergence showed how "perilous and precarious" the situation was.
"Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics," he told the start of an assembly of health ministers expected to launch negotiations on such an agreement.
"Our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores."
The new global deal, expected by May 2024, would cover issues such as sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, and of any potential vaccines derived from research.
The Omicron variant was first reported on Nov. 24 from South Africa, where infections have risen steeply.
It has since spread to more than a dozen countries, many of which have imposed travel restrictions to try to seal themselves off. Japan on Monday joined Israel in saying it would close its borders completely to foreigners.
The WHO reiterated that, pending further advice, countries should use a "risk-based approach to adjust international travel measures", while acknowledging that a rise in coronavirus cases might lead to higher morbidity and mortality rates.
"The impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage," it added.
In vaccinated persons, meanwhile, "COVID-19 cases and infections are expected ... albeit in a small and predictable proportion".
Overall, there were "considerable uncertainties in the magnitude of immune escape potential of Omicron", and more data was expected in coming weeks.
— With a report from Reuters