While the highly-mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19 has yet to be detected in the country, it is “possible” that the strain is already here, the head of the Philippine Genome Center said Saturday.
“So far, we have not detected Omicron from the 18,000 samples we have sequenced,” PCG executive director Cynthia Saloma said.
“[But] it is possible that it has entered our borders. We are on the lookout for that. The possibility exists but until such time we already have the whole genome sequence, [we cannot say for certain],” she added.
The government is still waiting for the genome sequencing on the samples from three travelers from South Africa, Burkina Omicron…Faso and Egypt who tested positive for COVID-19.
Saloma urged local government units to submit samples to the PGC if they see spikes in cases in a particular area.
“We are always ready to sequence them. As we always say, it is not a matter of if. It is just a question of when, that is why we have to be prepared and improve our healthcare facilities,” she said.
The country has placed 14 countries in its updated “red list” of countries and territories covered by the temporary travel ban, namely Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique.
Some 242 travelers who arrived in the Philippines in November tested positive for COVID-19, Saloma said, citing data from the Bureau of Quarantine.
“They are being traced now and we are coordinating with airport laboratories that conducted the tests to submit the positive samples to the PGC for sequencing. We have sufficient kits,” Saloma said.
As to the 253 travelers from South Africa who arrived in the Philippines from Nov. 15 to 29 – or before the red list was updated –165 passengers are under the verification process, 80 have been contacted to undergo verification, and eight are still being located through backtracing, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.
Over the weekend, the World Health Organization said Omicron has been detected in 38 countries but there are no reported deaths so far from the new COVID-19 variant.
The United States and Australia became the latest countries to confirm locally transmitted cases of the variant, as Omicron infections pushed South Africa’s total cases past three million.
A WHO spokesman said the UN health agency had “not seen reports of Omicron-related deaths yet.”
The WHO said it will take several weeks to determine how infectious Omicron is, and to assess how vaccines, tests and treatments hold up against it.
But it insisted Friday that scientists were well on top of it and would be able to produce those answers soon.
“We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said. “We need to trust in science now and be patient and not be fearful.”
The new variant’s spread has led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s COVID cases in the next few months.
The new variant could also slow global economic recovery, just as the Delta strain did, International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva said.
“Even before the arrival of this new variant, we were concerned that the recovery, while it continues, is losing some momentum,” she said.
“A new variant that may spread very rapidly can dent confidence.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said of the mild Omicron cases found so far, the patients were mainly travelers. With AFP