POSTSCRIPT / January 23, 2022 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Taking Omicron lightly is a gamble

Let’s not lower our guard in dealing with the reportedly milder Omicron variant whose rapid spreading of COVID-19 infection some quarters believe could help the country attain herd immunity in tandem with mass inoculation.

A few people have been so taken by the claim that Omicron would just give flu-like symptoms that won’t kill if properly managed — that they even expose themselves to the variant expecting to emerge with stronger immunity against COVID.

An upward trend in infections has been observed in a majority of areas in the National Capital Region. (The STAR / Michael Varcas)

This favorable impression of Omicron may have been reinforced when people showing early COVID symptoms that had not yet affected their lungs recovered without hospitalization. They were just confined at home and plied with over-the-counter medicines and native remedies.

But before this positive picture emboldens authorities to engineer a rush return to normalcy, we caution against their mixing medical measures with propaganda to influence the May 9 national elections by projecting their supposed deft handling of the pandemic.

If there is a prescription we should heed during this public health crisis that has taken at least 53,400 Filipino lives, it is that we should not allow politics to poison our medicine.

There is a belief that mass vaccination reinforced by the immunity contributed by infection by variants like Omicron would speed up attaining herd immunity, which is that level when at least 70 percent of the population have gained protection.

A number of anti-vaxxers abroad who overestimate Omicron’s being milder than previous variants have even exposed themselves to its infections. They mingle with crowds disregarding protocols for masking and distancing – with not so pleasant consequences all around.

In the Philippines, Public Attorney’s Office Chief Persida Rueda Acosta is a prominent personal objector to COVID vaccination. She explains that she was still waiting for a vaccine that uses harmless protein fragments that mimic the coronavirus in generating immunity.

One wonders if this stand was influenced by her role in filing charges in 2018 arising from the controversial injecting of school children with Sanofi Pasteur’s anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia under a health department program that went awry.

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Some vaccine protesters insisted they would not be infected by the milder Omicron even if they were not inoculated. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US chief adviser on COVID matters, warned that chances of escaping the variant without vaccination were slim.

In England, Dr. Quinton Fivelman, chief scientific officer at London Medical Laboratory, said that deliberately seeking to become infected with Omicron was “extremely misguided” and could have lethal consequences.

In a note published on Jan. 20, Fivelman warned that while it can be argued that catching Omicron is much like coming down with a bad cold, “it can rapidly escalate into a life-threatening disease, particularly for people with preexisting conditions.”

In the Philippines, where many people insist on going around despite restrictions, they do so not to expose themselves to the virus, but to carry out essential activities like going to (or looking for) work, running important errands, or earning money to meet the family’s daily needs.

In the most crowded areas, such as the National Capital Region, Calabarzon and Central Luzon, as well as urban centers in the South, most people have to go out daily mostly to make a living and not in a deliberate flouting of public health rules.

Government data show, meanwhile, that COVID infections continue to rise in crowded areas outside Metro Manila. While there is no clear indication of which variant fuels the spread since Omicron has been found most transmissible, it is presumed to be the main spreader.

The Department of Health reported 30,552 new COVID-19 cases yesterday (bringing the national total cases that day to 3,387,524), 97 new deaths, and a positivity rate of 45.1 percent (meaning 90 out of every 200 suspects tested proved positive).

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The Omicron variant is not likely to help achieve herd immunity, which is thought to be attainable if big enough a percentage of people would be vaccinated or infected, some leading disease experts interviewed by Reuters said.

Those hopes have dimmed as the coronavirus mutated into new variants in quick succession over the past year, enabling it to reinfect people who were vaccinated or had previously contracted COVID-19, the experts said.

It was thought that as the variant spreads quickly and causes milder illness, it might soon expose enough people, in a less harmful way, to the SARS-COV-2 virus and provide that protection.

Experts noted, however, that Omicron’s transmissibility is aided by its being better than its predecessors at infecting people who were vaccinated or had a prior infection. That shows that the virus will continue to find ways to break through our immune defenses, they said.

“Reaching a theoretical threshold beyond which transmission will cease is probably unrealistic given the experience we have had in the pandemic,” Dr. Olivier le Polain, an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization, told Reuters.

They are not saying that prior immunity offers no benefit. Instead of herd immunity, many experts said, there was growing evidence that vaccines and prior infection help boost population protection, making the disease less serious for those who are infected or reinfected.

“As long as population immunity holds with this variant and future variants, we’ll be fortunate and the disease will be manageable,” said Dr. David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 23, 2022)

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