New Covid variant a litmus test to govt pandemic response

Val A. Villanueva-Businesswise

I just had a lengthy phone conversation with a dear friend who had just survived the Delta variant of Covid-19. He was fully vaccinated with Sinovac and in the pink of health before the virus struck, and with no known comorbidities. And yet, his Covid attack was so severe that he was given only an 8 percent chance to live. Due to extreme breathing complications, my friend was intubated and medically induced into a coma. His pneumonia caused his left lung to collapse, and other vital parts of his body were in severe stress.

While in the middle of his lung operation, his brain suddenly regained consciousness, but his body remained in deep state of immobility. He would learn later that he was only half comatose. This was mainly due to the fact that the anesthetics used to numb sensation or induce him into extreme unconsciousness could have only done half of what they were intended to do. His body had been paralyzed, he could not move even an inch no matter how hard he tried. He could hear voices of people around him at that time and agonized at the pain of every thrust and slice of the scalpel, the prick of the needles that bore into his body. His brain kept sending shouting signals to his body, but no sound came out of his vocal chords. The doctors and nurses in the operating room couldn’t hear him and were oblivious to the sufferings he was going through. In excruciating pain, feeling terrified and alone, he began praying, seeking the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Out of hospital now, after six debilitating weeks, he said he believes that miracles do happen. He is living proof of it. His family and friends had stormed the heavens with prayers, and with God’s grace, he was able to beat an 8 percent chance of survival. He is undergoing physiotherapy to improve his motor skills and overall well-being.  

I’m relating this to remind everyone that vaccines do not guarantee full and lasting protection against Covid and its ever-mutating variants. So far, this pandemic has taken the lives of five of my close friends who have been fully vaccinated.Yes,Covid vaccines train our bodies to develop defenses to the disease, and reduces our chances of hospitalization and lowers our risk of dying from Covid-19, but as to why vaccinated people still die is something science has still to fully address. Health experts explain that as more and more people in a community get vaccinated, the higher that chance of preventing the spread of the disease. They blame the number of unvaccinated people as the key reason to the emergence of coronavirus variants. This is because the virus replicates quicker in unvaccinated people and increases the chance of mutation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Center for Disease and Control (CDC) say that aside from getting vaccinated, the best way to prevent getting sick of Covid is to observe strict health protocols. Even White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci has been advocating the use of face masks, properly worn of course; frequent handwashing, and social distancing, as still the surest way to shield us from this deadly virus. Even vaccinated people, Dr. Fauci says, should strictly adhere to this simple health protocols.

The recent relaxation of the country’s health restrictions has opened the floodgates to Filipinos, young and old, who have been deprived of their mobility for almost two years—one of the longest Covid lockdowns in the world—to flock in droves to malls, beaches, and other leisure places. Just the other day, I went out to buy necessities at a nearby mall, and was aghast to see parents with their very young children in tow, sans masks and ignoring physical distancing guidance. Insensible that the virus still lurks, these irresponsible adults were creating a worrying scenario of a super spreader.

A new variant, Omicron, is threatening to shut down the world once again. First detected in Botswana, Omicron has already sent Europe into high defense mode after cases were detected in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Belgium. The Czech Republic, Austria, Israel, and the Netherlands are all investigating suspected cases of the variant. Here in Asia, only Japan has reported its first Omicron case. Scientists have yet to confirm, however, whether Omicron is more transmissible than the Delta variant. 

In a recent Malacañang weekly health briefing, President Duterte asked Health Secretary Francisco Duque about the probability of Omicron reaching our shores. In response, Duque said that “it is not the question of if, but when.” It was such a reckless statement and fatalistic attitude, I thought. Duque has practically thrown in the towel in our country’s fight against Covid. As the country’s health chief, Duque is supposed to provide natural leadership and play an advocacy role in pandemic preparedness and response efforts. Sadly, the leader in him is nowhere to be found.

To its credit, the government on Sunday imposed a ban on inbound flights from seven more countries, on top of the earlier seven, amid growing concerns over the Omicron variant. The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) added Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy to the “red list” countries from November 28 to December 15. The country earlier banned inbound flights from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique. They were placed under the red list immediately following the announcement of the detection of the new variant.

President Duterte is also mulling to make mandatory in the country anti-Covid vaccination for all eligible people, a move that is gaining traction among his health advisers. The IATF has warned that, should Omicron make its entry here, the country will revert to strict lockdown status.

The announcement of South Africa’s health minister on Thursday of the discovery of Omicron, or the B.1.1.529 variant, which has been spreading rapidly in his country, strongly signals that the pandemic is far from over. Just hours after the announcement, several nations—including the United States and the United Kingdom—banned travel from South Africa and surrounding African countries. It is hoped that the travel restrictions, as announced by US President Joe Biden on Friday, will afford the US valuable time to learn more about the new variant. The emergence of Omicron has already raised red flags for several weeks, but it was only recently that experts found out how serious it was.

Manufacturers of vaccines also raise serious concern about Omicron. For one, Moderna sees a “significant potential risk” to its Covid-19 vaccine. On a Friday news release, it said: “The recently described Omicron variant includes mutations seen in the Delta variant that are believed to increase transmissibility and mutations seen in the Beta and Delta variants that are believed to promote immune escape. The combination of mutations represents a significant potential risk to accelerate the waning of natural and vaccine-induced immunity.”

The fight to prevent Omicron from setting foot in the Philippines is a great challenge to the Duterte administration in its waning months. Has the government learned its lessons from its fatal mistakes in its handling of the pandemic? Will Duque’s “crystal ball” prevail over the government’s effort to prevent Omicron’s entry into the country?

As scientists around the world scramble to learn more about Omicron, I believe that wearing masks, avoiding crowded places, and getting vaccinated are still the best prevention program to follow to avoid Covid infection. With the way mutations occur rapidly, given the number of undisciplined and unvaccinated among us, the pandemic will not go away any time soon.

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