When the world first got wind of the Omicron variant from South Africa last November 2021, a general sense of dread filled the scientific and medical world.
We saw how contagious and deadly the Delta variant was. Here was a variant with multiple mutations in its spike proteins that enabled it to evade antibodies created in response to previous vaccines.
It multiplied 70 times faster than Delta, guaranteeing the ability to spread even faster from one person to another. Personally, reading about the variant then made me pray very hard. It sounded like an apocalyptic virus that could truly wipe out all but the strongest among us.
But fortunately, studies coming out of South Africa, the first country to identify the variant and weather the Omicron surge, show that while it is a highly contagious virus, as contagious as measles, its symptoms are generally mild, especially among the vaccinated.
In fact, latest studies show that among the vaccinated and boosted, around one-third may be asymptomatic. This high asymptomatic load also contributes to its fast spread.
The highly contagious nature of Omicron, while causing generally milder disease than older variants, has led many scientists to refer to it as nature’s vaccine.
It is behaving like an attenuated (weakened) virus. And because it is very contagious, it is bound to infect almost everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. And because of this, it may achieve what man-made vaccines have not been able to achieve because of still widespread vaccine hesitancy and inequity—which is herd immunity, the end of the pandemic and the start of endemicity for SARS-CoV-2.
This is the hope among us who view this variant with cautious optimism. But the keyword here is cautious, because we are still dealing with an unpredictable virus. And this virus, if allowed to infect those who are vulnerable such as those who are immunocompromised, those with various comorbidities, and the unvaccinated among the vulnerable, could still mutate into a more lethal variant.
Furthermore, while Omicron in areas like Metro Manila where a high percentage of people are already vaccinated and even boosted, can be expected to result in a surge similar to the South African experience—with quick, exponential increase in generally mild cases within around four weeks then a quick decrease without a significant increase in deaths—it may not be the same for areas in the Philippines where the vaccination rate is still low.
It may also be disastrous for the Supertyphoon “Odette”-ravaged areas where a low vaccination rate is combined with the lack of water and electricity in many parts, poor sanitation, cramped quarters in evacuation centers, malnutrition, rampant upper respiratory infections, diarrhea, and other illnesses that tend to occur in such conditions. Omicron might not be as kind in these areas.
It is therefore important for us to try to catch up with vaccination in the most vulnerable areas before the Omicron surge catches up with them, which it is bound to do. We must delay this as long as possible by allowing only fully vaccinated and RT-PCR negative persons to travel to these areas while rehabilitation and vaccine catch-up are still ongoing.
As for us in areas where the Omicron infection is now raging, we just need to weather this storm by keeping to our homes as much as possible, getting ourselves vaccinated and/or boostered when possible, protecting the vulnerable, and acting responsibly.
Many of the people who test positive simply have symptoms of the common cold. Some have sore throat, fever, and body aches. But in general, the symptoms are mild and can be treated simply at home as one would treat a cold or the flu. Let’s avoid rushing to hospitals where the more seriously ill need to be attended to by overworked and undermanned health care workers.
Government and industries must make sure the medicines for symptomatic relief are available to avoid widespread panic. Teleconsultation must be more accessible and barangays must be empowered.
The Omicron variant is being fairly kind to those of us who have been vaccinated or who have some immunity from previous COVID-19 infection, and who don’t have to live through the harsh winters of other countries. Is Omicron the beginning of the end of the pandemic? It could be. We need to keep praying it is. But we cannot be complacent. We must do our part to keep each other safe while this tempest rages. This too shall pass.
Dr. Ma. Dominga “Minguita” Padilla is a co-convenor of Doctors for Truth and Public Welfare. She is the founder of the Eye Bank Foundation and served as head executive staff of PHIC from March 31, 2015 to June 30, 2016. She is a recipient of multiple awards for her work involving prevention of blindness, community service, and curbing insurance fraud. She is running for the Senate under Partido Reporma.
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