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Not to be taken lightly

The Omicron variant first detected in South Africa and Hong Kong last month has now been reported by 77 countries and is most probably present worldwide, should not be dismissed as “mild,” warned World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” Tedros told an online briefing. “Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

The WHO chief added that COVID-19 vaccines appear to become slightly less effective in preventing severe disease and death but still provide “significant protection.”

Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine has been found by a real-world study published this week to be less effective in South Africa at keeping people infected with the virus out of hospital since the Omicron variant emerged last month.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies director, said the peak of this wave of infections remains “a number of weeks” away given the very rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which has outpaced the dominant global strain Delta.

Vaccine booster shots can play a role in curbing the spread of COVID-19 as long as people most need in protection also get access to jabs, WHO said. Tedros noted that the emergence of Omicron prompted some countries to roll out booster programs for their entire adult populations, even as researchers lack evidence for the efficacy of boosters against this variant. This has led to concerns that such programs could repeat the vaccine hoarding problem and exacerbate inequity.

The combination of the more infectious Omicron variant, a false sense of security stemming from its less alarming label of being “mild,” and the ongoing holiday season is a potential recipe for disaster, especially in countries with fragile health systems such as the Philippines. The only way to minimize the risk of infection is to assume it has already penetrated our communities and is threatening our bubbles. As such, maximum compliance with precautions and health protocols will still have to be observed, especially among those who interact with the unvaccinated.

A variant like Omicron will put a damper on our country that is just opening up and loosening restrictions amidst the holiday season that millions of Filipinos have been missing out on. However, we have to adjust plans and heighten our defenses with it in mind if we do not want to backslide and see our communities go through another wave of infections that could further delay our chances of fully recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.*

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