MANILA—The decline of COVID-19 cases amid continued relaxed restrictions in the Philippines could mean the country has achieved "substantial population immunity" against the coronavirus, an expert said on Monday.
Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist and member of the OCTA Research group, said that even though the Philippines had struggled coping with the effects of the Delta strain, the "most infectious" COVID-19 variant in the past 20 months, more and more Filipinos are moving around.
According to Austriaco, the country is recording its lowest levels of cases and hospitalization in the past 20 months even as it is currently experiencing the highest mobility levels since it recorded its first coronavirus case and the beginning of its major lockdown in March 2020.
The Department of Health earlier Monday reported 543 fresh COVID-19 cases, including 13,548 active cases, the lowest number of current infections since May 31, 2020.
The figure is also the lowest so far this year, the DOH added.
"It suggests that we have attained substantial population immunity from natural infections and vaccinations in the urban areas of the Philippines because the pandemic has raged and spread primarily in our cities and our first-class municipalities," Austriaco said during a taped public briefing attended by President Rodrigo Duterte and Cabinet officials.
"The fact that the virus is struggling to find new Filipinos to infect, suggests we have attained substantial population immunity."
Austriaco said the surge caused by the Delta variant in the Philippines earlier this year was not as bad as COVID-19 waves seen in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, since these other nations did not endure what the Philippines went through under the earlier Alpha and Beta variants.
"As you can see, the Philippines experienced, unlike these three other countries, substantial waves of previous variants. Especially the Alpha, Beta variants which struck our beloved country in March and April of this year. So combining the vaccinations and the natural immunity, what you're seeing here is that many of our cities where the pandemic tends to focus are now stable enough to prevent transmission," he said.
THE OMICRON THREAT
Austriaco, meanwhile, said the new Omicron variant, which has alarmed experts and officials worldwide after it was first discovered by scientists in South Africa last month, has more than 50 mutations and is more complicated compared to Delta.
Based on a study, however, he said in South Africa, even though Omicron cases are rising rapidly, they are not soaring faster than infections caused by the Delta variant.
"Despite the accelerating numbers of cases of Omicron, the hospitalizations are on track, and are not rising fast, very similar to the other waves of variants in South Africa," Austriaco said.
But he also cited another South African study that Omicron is more likely to reinfect people than earlier variants, and "that it is more transmissible among vaccinated individuals."
However, there have been more hospitalizations of unvaccinated people struck by the new variant than those who have received their COVID-19 shots and were also infected by it in the African state.
"This is incredibly hopeful," Austriaco said.
He added that the Omicron is "probably less" dangerous than Delta.
The Philippines has yet to detect the Omicron variant, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said earlier Monday.
The DOH is still tracking 8 travelers from South Africa who arrived in the country between November 15 and 29, the DOH spokesperson said.
The country, which has been dealing with one of Asia's worst COVID-19 outbreaks, has fully inoculated at least 38.1 million of its 110 million population.
Meanwhile, Professor Jomar Rabajante of the University of the Philippines (UP) pandemic response team, said the lower number of the COVID-19 cases in the country may be attributed to its vaccination drive.
"Kung titingnan natin itong pagbaba ng kaso, simula actually nung November dire-diretso pagbaba ’yung kaso natin sa Pilipinas ‘no," he said.
"Sa aming pagtingin, mailalagay natin ‘to dahil sa immunization, yung vaccination natin. Lumalawak ang ating vaccination at ating mga kababayan ay nagkakaroon ng immunity.
"Although titingnan din natin, nagkaroon din ng epekto kasi sa epidemiology kapag dumami yung mga nahawa before, remember we had peak nung September, ’yung mga nahawa that time, nagkaroon din sila ng tinatawag na natural immunity.
"So, nagkaroon din sila ng immunity na, ngayon nakikita natin may epekto kaya bumaba yung cases."
Rabajante urged the public to remain vigilant as more businesses reopen in the country, but stressed that the COVID-19 Delta variant remains present in the country.
"Ito rin naman yung aming messaging, even before mag-start ’yung December no, na wag po nating kalilimutan na meron pa ring delta variant," he said.
"Ngayon kasi panay Omicron ’yung pinag-uusapan natin, but definitely marami pa ring delta variant around us, at ito ay posibleng maging sanhi ng superspreader events lalo na if nandoon tayo sa isang lugar na maraming tao tapos, hindi masyadong maganda ’yung ventilation at another one ay, may mga tao doon na di vaccinated."