The Manila-based World Health Organization's Western Pacific Regional Office said Friday the latest global health challenge COVID-19 variant named Omicron had been found in at least four areas in the region.
WHO said the areas were Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, WHO Regional Emergency Director Dr. Babatunde Olowokure said in a virtual press conference, warning there were likely more places in the region where Omicron was already present.
Meanwhile, local government units may impose stricter measures in their areas amid the threat of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, the head of the League of Provinces of the Philippines said Friday.
Marinduque Governor Presbitero Velasco said LGUs have the power to impose “reasonable regulations” to protect their constituents from COVID-19.
“So, the LGUs have the power to impose reasonable regulations, especially on the entry of people to their territories,” he said on ANC's Rundown.
“We issue executive orders to impose additional safeguards so with respect to foreign travelers, there would be some more safeguards, like possibly they’ll be required to undergo the RT-PCR testing, and that they be subjected to medical assessment or examination upon arrival in the territory of the particular LGU."
“We also prescribe that they be confined to their hotels or lodging places when they are in the LGU. Sometimes we closely monitor their activities, and we tell them that if they experience symptoms. Then they are required to report the same to our doctors,” the former Supreme Court justice said.
Velasco said these restrictions may be imposed on top of the testing and quarantine guidelines for arriving international passengers released by the national government on Thursday.
The B.1.1.529 or the Omicron variant was first announced by South Africa on November 24 and was blamed for the increase in cases in the region.
The new variant of concern, first detected in South Africa, has been found in all six global regions covered by the WHO.
"The geographic distribution is quite likely pretty wide already," Olowokure said, adding early data suggested Omicron was more transmissible than other COVID-19 variants.
Meanwhile, there is no data yet to say it causes more severe illness or is more resistant to existing vaccines.
But Olowokure noted there was also no information yet showing that public health measures in place were ineffective against the new variant.
The possibility of a case surge due to the new COVID-19 Omicron variant "is not that high," fellows from the OCTA Research Group said.
While the Omicron variant "appears to be spreading faster" than earlier COVID-19 strains, vaccinated people who contract this type of coronavirus "are only showing mild symptoms at worse," OCTA Research fellow Guido David said in an online press conference.
"Even if we experience an increase in cases, it will not be as bad as our experience with the delta or the alpha or the beta," he said.
"We still do not have enough data. [So far] It is more transmissible, but vaccinations may help reduce transmissibility," he said.
Guido explained that initial data showed that one carrier of the Omicron variant may infect up to 10 people, but among fully-vaccinated groups, the strain's reproduction number may drop to 1 transmission.
"The threat of a surge is not that high," he said.
"The threat of another lockdown in the National Capital Region is much, much lower, based on this preliminary information," he said, noting that about 80 percent of adults in Metro Manila have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
"Provinces with low vaccine coverage may be vulnerable to surges and lockdowns," he said.
Meanwhile, the government said it had "very transparent" metrics for tightening restrictions and would not raise COVID-19 alert levels haphazardly over the specter of the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant.
The whole country is under COVID-19 Alert Level 2 until Dec. 15. The highest Alert Level 5 is raised only in areas where COVID-19 figures pose high or critical risk, and where the health care utilization has reached at least 85 percent, said epidemiology bureau chief Dr. Alethea de Guzman.
If COVID-19 cases continue to improve, "then we will not shift to any higher alert level," said Palace acting spokesman Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles.
"Our metrics are very, very transparent and the IATF will not elevate the alert level haphazardly, until necessary, based on the metrics and parameters,” he said.
De Guzman urged the public, "We can be on the lookout, especially if we see an increase in cases and a spike in hospital admissions is reported, that should be a signal there should be enhanced response so we would not escalate our alert level.”
There is no evidence yet that the Omicron variant, classified by the World Health Organization as a "variant of concern," could cause a more severe illness or a higher chance of death to a COVID-19 patient, the Department of Health said.
"There is no evidence that the Omicron variant can cause a more serious illness or increase the risk of death or that a particular age group such as children will be more affected,” de Guzman said at the Laging Handa briefing.
"All of these data are continuously being studied by the WHO and our global experts and it is expected that we will have new data available or recommendations in the next week or two," De Guzman said.
De Guzman said there were possible delays in reports of countries that had local cases of the Omicron variant.