The Philippines may increase its COVID-19 immunity vaccination target from 70 percent to 100 percent of the country's population to prevent community transmission of emerging coronavirus variants, a Department of Health (DOH) official said on Sunday.
Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega, in an interview over radio dzBB, said the 70 percent target would only protect people from severe infection from the original coronavirus strain.
“With the new variants, we need to raise the herd immunity to 90 percent or possibly 100 percent,” Vega said in Filipino.
Over 55.4 million individuals have already received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.
Some 37 million individuals are already fully vaccinated, the National COVID-19 Vaccination Dashboard, as of Dec. 4, showed.
With the threat of the Omicron variant, Vega urged the public to get inoculated, saying that vaccines are effective against severe infection even with the variants.
“This is one of the ways to stop transmission or viral loads of COVID-19,” Vega said.
The new variant, which was first detected in South Africa, has been recorded in Europe, United States, and some parts of Asia.
Omicron is tagged a "variant of concern" like the Delta variant by the World Health Organization.
The Philippines has not yet detected the Omicron variant in the country, but Malacañang is monitoring the results of genome sequencing of three travelers from South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Egypt, who tested positive for the coronavirus disease.
The University of the Philippines COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team (UP PRT), meanwhile, said that being inoculated with the primary doses of vaccines and booster shots could still help fight the Omicron variant should it enter the country.
UP PRT spokesman Dr. Jomar Rabajante, told radio dzBB that they are monitoring the studies from other countries regarding the Omicron variant of the COVID-19.
“Many experts from other countries say that Omicron is highly transmissible, even up to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant. It spreads fast and this is evident in South Africa which reports plenty of Omicron variant cases,” Rabajante said.
Rabajante said that the higher transmissibility of Omicron compared to Delta could be seen in the case of South Africa, which was only detected in the country in early November, but has already infected lots of individuals a month afterward.
On the other hand, he said it took a couple of months before the Delta variant spread to various countries.
He also noted, however, that some experts said the severity of these cases was mild—but this is still subject to verification by the WHO.
Rabajante also cited a study that showed that the reinfection rate was high among those who have had COVID-19 before.
“What we are sure of right now is that amid the presence of the Omicron variant, it could help if you’re already vaccinated,” he said.
The Philippine Genome Center on Saturday floated the possibility that the Omicron variant may have already crossed the country’s borders.
No case has been detected so far however from the 18,000 sequenced samples.
The Department of Health (DOH) on Friday said 253 travelers from South Africa, three from Burkina Faso, and 541 from Egypt arrived in the country from Nov. 15 to Nov. 29. Three of them tested positive for COVID-19.
As Christmas draws nearer, Rabajante reminded the public that while there has been a decline in new reported cases, people should still be careful because the disease can still lead to death or land people in intensive care units.
“While we still don’t have much information, we should stay safe and continue the vaccination program. Also, if you’ve been given the green light to get the booster shot, do so to increase your immunity when the Omicron arrives here,” he said.
A molecular biologist with the OCTA Research Group urged the government to procure two anti-COVID drugs that deal with all variants of the respiratory disease, including the newly detected Omicron.
"We have drugs now from Merck and Pfizer and these drugs will attack all the variants equally well. The Philippines has to try to buy these drugs," said Fr. Nicanor Austriaco.
Austriaco, who teaches at the University of Sto. Tomas and has a PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was referring to molnupiravir and paxlovid, which were developed by American pharmaceutical companies Merck and Pfizer, respectively.
A panel of experts from the United States' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this week recommended the authorization of molnupiravir to treat COVID-19 after the pill proved effective against the respiratory illness.
The Philippines' FDA has issued a compassionate special permit for use of molnupiravir in several hospitals.
In November, a shipment of molnupiravir arrived in the Philippines through a local pharmaceutical company.
Pfizer's recent study on paxlovid also showed the drug could significantly reduce the chances of hospitalization or death for adults at risk of developing severe COVID-19.
"The Pfizer drug, called paxlovid, is going to be public soon. And once that's public, it will change the way we manage the pandemic because if you get it, even if it's Omicron or something else, we'll just give you the drugs. And you can take it at home–once in the morning, once at night," said Austriaco.
The anti-COVID pill may be prescribed by a doctor to patients who are senior citizens or have comorbidities, he said, noting that the drugs will be taken twice a day for five days.
The drug is not recommended to be given to young and healthy people, especially those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, because their bodies are capable of fighting the virus, Austriaco said.
"This is prescription only so it's in the hospital. The doctor has to prescribe it," he said of the two drugs.
"We anticipate that both of these drugs will be used in our hospitals probably in the next few weeks.
Austriaco said studies have yet to show if current COVID-19 vaccines are less effective against the Omicron variant, which is what worries some scientists as they acknowledge that the spike protein of the new strain is very different from other variants.
"There is no definitive data pa (yet). It's only been one week and it takes two weeks to do those experiments," he said.
"We know that vaccines still protect you. We’re still not sure how good that protection is. We will know within a week. By next week, we will have a sense of how good the protection is," he said.
The head of the International Red Cross said the emergence of the Omicron variant is the “ultimate evidence” of the danger of unequal vaccination rates around the world.
In an interview with the Agence France-Presse during a visit to Moscow, Francesco Rocca, the president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, also raised concerns about the politicization of migrants and for the plight of civilians in Afghanistan as winter approaches.
Asked about the global approach to vaccinations, the head of one of the world's largest humanitarian groups said more needed to be done to fight rampant vaccine inequality.
"The scientific community has warned… on several occasions about the risks of very new variants in places where there is a very low rate of vaccinations," he said.
About 65 percent of people in high-income countries have had at least one dose of vaccine against the coronavirus, but just over 7 percent in low-income countries, UN numbers show.
Western countries have been accused of hoarding vaccines and the WHO has urged them to avoid a rush to give out booster shots when millions worldwide have yet to receive a single dose. With AFP