President Rodrigo Duterte said he wanted to “shoot dead” the new threat posed by the Omicron variant of COVID-19, even as his government is prepared for the worst-case scenario and will ensure the safety of the public, the Palace said Monday.
This developed as the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases approved the recommendation to keep Metro Manila under Alert Level 2 from Dec. 1 to 15, acting spokesperson Karlo Nograles said.
Also on Monday, economists urged the government to consider preemptive measures to prevent the entry of the Omicron variant, saying failure to do this might again lead to punishing lockdowns that would derail the economy’s recovery.
The entry of the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant is a matter of when, and not if, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III warned Monday.
But under Alert Level 2, the second lowest in the new COVID-19 alert level system, certain establishments and activities are allowed at 50% capacity indoors for fully vaccinated adults (and minors, even if unvaccinated) and 70% capacity outdoors, as the country seeks to reopen the economy.
“Gusto kong patayin ‘yan kaya lang hindi ko malaman kung saan ko—gusto kong barilin ‘yan buang na ‘yan,” Duterte said in a meeting with the National Task Force Against COVID-19.
[I want to kill that but I don’t know where—I want to shoot that fool.]
Earlier in a press briefing, acting Palace spokesman Karlo Nograles reminded the public to put safety first during holiday celebrations by continuing to comply with minimum health standards.
“We have activated our four-door policy to prevent the Omicron variant from entering the country,” he said, referring to border control, active surveillance including test and trace, early isolation, and treatment of all who test positive and the vaccination program.
The Omicron variant, which was first detected in Botswana, Southern Africa, has been declared as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“In terms of health care measures, I may not be in a position to make recommendations. But insofar as border closures can help limit the spread of a possibly more virulent or transmissible diseases, then perhaps authorities can and should deploy them,” ING Bank Manila senior economist Nicholas Mapa said in a report on Monday.
Mapa said the worst-case scenario would be a potential return to hard lockdowns and as experience had shown, prevention was always less costly than the cure.
But Nograles said the government is acting “with a sense of urgency” to keep the variant out of the country as it scrapped a plan to allow the entry of some vaccinated foreign tourists starting Dec. 1 and banned the entry of travelers from countries in its “red list.”
On Sunday, the COVID-19 task force placed Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy under the red list. The travel bans initially covered only South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique.
A former adviser to the government’s COVID-19 task force, Dr. Tony Leachon, urged the government to include Hong Kong, where the Omicron variant has been detected, and which has a high number of Filipino workers.
But Nograles said only countries with local cases of the Omicron variant would be put in the red list.
He said this was why Hong Kong was not included in the red list, he added.
The Department of Health (DOH) on Monday called for strict border controls and minimum public health standards following the classification of Omicron as a COVID-19 variant of concern.
Dr. Alethea de Guzman, director of the DOH epidemiology bureau, said the Omicron variant or B.1.1.529 has a total of 50 mutations, of which 30 are found in the spike protein region.
Due to these mutations, it is “possible that the Omicron variant may have increased transmissibility and immune evasion,” the DOH said.
Further studies have to be made on the variant’s transmissibility and impact on vaccine efficacy, it added.
“We heightened our monitoring and response because we’ve seen many mutations, to delay as much as possible the variant’s entry to the Philippines,” De Guzman said in Filipino.
Local governments are urged to quickly identify and isolate new cases while all eligible samples of returning overseas Filipinos will undergo genome sequencing, De Guzman said.
“With or without Omicron, we need to fully vaccinate everyone as large a percentage as possible, and parallel to that, provide booster dosage to three priority populations,” De Guzman said.
“We’re still studying the rollout of booster doses to other priority groups such as A4,” she said.
The country on Monday began its three-day national vaccination drive which aims to inoculate at least 9 million more individuals in a bid to reach its minimum target of immunizing 50 million people against COVID-19 this year.
All areas in the country are under a low risk case classification at the moment, with low occupancy of bed and intensive care units, De Guzman said.
Meanwhile, the director of the UP National Institutes of Health Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana, was hopeful that the Omicron variant will fizzle out, since early data suggests it isn’t more deadly and most cases are showing mild symptoms.
“This is very preliminary, and more data is needed to confirm these observations,” he said.
Because people already know how to deal with the virus, the country is in a better situation than it was last year, when there were no vaccines and no effective drugs, Salvana said.
For more than two weeks, he added, the positivity rate has been well below 5 percent with adequate testing.
“I haven’t had a new hospitalized COVID-19 case in two weeks,” he said.
He added that Philippine General Hospital cases are down to 62 and badly needed non-COVID-19 wards are opening up.
He acknowledged, however, that with so much that is still unknown, it is difficult to feel optimistic.
“Of late, we’ve seen a widespread relaxing of curbs which in turn has led to a widespread ‘lowering of everyone’s guard’ as they see daily infections slide below 1,000. This may or may not lead to a resurgence of cases, but we do know that higher cases generally lead to slower economic output and a possible unwanted detour for our nascent recovery,” Mapa said.
Mapa said visions of another round of Delta-style lockdowns was enough for panic to reverberate across financial markets. He said stocks related to reopening were sold off.
“The flash pan panic displayed in the last few days underscores just how fragile the global recovery really is and how susceptible we could be to the worst case scenario of the lockdowns and widespread economic paralysis. The anxiety highlights that we are clearly not out of the woods just yet as the current crop of vaccines may or may not be effective against the very mysterious Omicron variant,” Mapa said.
Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. chief economist Michael Ricafort, meanwhile, said the impact of the Omicron variant on the economic recovery depends on the resulting increase in the number of new global and local COVID-19 cases in the coming days.
More importantly, he said the impact of the Omicron variant could also be cushioned by the increased vaccination in the country towards population protection as early as the latter part of 2021 or by early 2022 and eventually towards herd immunity by early to mid-2022, but it has yet to be established if the existing vaccines would be effective against the Omicron variant.
“The immediate impact of Omicron would be the adverse effects of travel or flight restrictions, quarantine restrictions, and other international mobility curbs, all of which would slow down the global economic recovery prospects,” Ricafort said.
Ricafort said the Omicron variant could potentially slow down further the re-opening of the economy, especially in terms of allowing the resumption of foreign tourism in the country and in the rest of the world, as well as the possible delay in further easing the restrictions on returning Filipino workers.
“The Omicron variant could also have an adverse impact on the movement of OFWs and other migrants worldwide, in view of travel restrictions especially in countries already with cases of the Omicron variant, which could also potentially add to the global supply chain disruptions or delays in terms of production and shipments,” he said.
The economy contracted by a record 9.6 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic, the worst gross domestic product (GDP) performance since World War II. This year, however, economic managers expect a 4-5 percent GDP expansion anchored on the faster pace of vaccination.
In the first three quarters, GDP averaged 4.9 percent, near the upper end of the target range.