Since the early days of the pandemic, Filipinos have had two main sources of local information about COVID-19—the government and an independent group of researchers that called themselves the OCTA Research Group.
While the government—through the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) and the Department of Health (DOH)— provided basic data such as the daily case count, the number of recoveries and the death toll, OCTA focused its attention initially on projections.
There were no epidemiologists speaking for the group, which at first identified itself as UP-OCTA—until the University of the Philippines disavowed any connection with it. Often speaking for OCTA was its president, Ranjit Rye, an assistant professor of political science at UP, and Guido David, a professor of mathematics, also at UP. They were later joined by Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist, who is a professor of biology and theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.
This disconnect between their fields of specialty and their work on the pandemic did not seem to bother anyone at first, and the media gleefully reported OCTA’s every projection—the more dire they were, the better the headlines.
But then OCTA began making recommendations based on its projections, egging the government toward hard lockdowns as a way of containing the spread of the virus and expressing their views on quarantine policies.
Eventually, some members of the House—unhappy with what they saw as the group’s alarmist bent—questioned the group’s methods and its credentials. At a hearing in September 2021, Rye told lawmakers who were concerned about the accuracy of OCTA’s projections and the panic that their analyses could spark, that they would “seriously consider recalibrating” their communications.
By October, it appeared that they had.
David, optimistic about the end of the surge at the time, said Filipinos could have a good Christmas in 2021, and said in places where people were vaccinated, they could “probably have a big Christmas party because the risk right now seems low.”
In the light of the new surge in COVID-19 cases now, David’s remark was overly optimistic at best, and irresponsible at worst.
Then, as new cases began doubling every two days possibly because of the more contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19, OCTA’s Austriaco declared that this was “the beginning of the end” of the pandemic. Those who survive infection, he said, would have antibodies that will protect them from other variants of COVID-19.
“We have to realize that Omicron is the beginning of the end of the pandemic because Omicron is going to provide the kind of population immunity that should stabilize our societies and should allow us to reopen,” Austriaco said.
He said after a hard month, Omicron would be “a blessing because it should provide the population protection that we need everywhere.”
His optimism, however, was not shared by other members of the medical community.
“Omicron is the most contagious variant yet of the SARS-COV2 virus,” a physician, Leonard Pascual, said. “Don’t let anyone win you over with the narrative that is a cure-all, end-all, ‘vaccine.’ It’s still COVID.”
A data scientist, Cherry Ronao, tweeted: “Why are we amplifying people talking about ‘natural vaccine’? The more people who get infected, the more the virus mutates, the more chances another variant of concern will emerge! What these people are proposing is a moving target!”
She also shared a tweet of an American virologist, Dr. Angela Rasmussen, who said that the key to stopping a virus from mutating is to prevent it from replicating.
Austriaco, a Catholic priest who believes that Adam and Eve can still be reconciled with science, also neglects to mention that not everyone will react in the same way to the Omicron variant, and some may suffer organ damage or even die, especially if they are not vaccinated. To suggest as Austriaco does that the Omicron variant is a gift from above is not only pie in the sky, it is downright irresponsible.