Erring on the side of caution

Published December 2, 2021, 12:02 AM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo


Diwa C. Guinigundo

Those latest health data from the Department of Health looked encouraging. Only 425 new cases were reported last Tuesday with 909 recoveries and 44 new deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, some 2.83 million have been infected with COVID-19 of various variants. Of all active cases, only 16 percent are severe and nearly seven percent are critical. Health capacities are looking up.

But there’s a threat in a new variant. We should be many times wiser now. At the beginning of 2020, the government belatedly closed our borders. We underestimated the virus. Of course, it surged and it was not joking. Even our dedicated medical workers were not spared.

We recall that when the Delta variant finally came, our health authorities were clueless as to whether it was here already. They could have been more forthright about the virus and warned the public against it. The Delta variant mutated much faster than it could be managed. Unfortunately, we dropped the ball in the procurement of the vaccines. We ended up last to vaccinate, we were destined to be the last to recover business activities.

Today, it seems like December 2020 all over again when the daily case load descended to less than a thousand. The situation was deceptively stabilizing. Instead of the Delta variant, it is Omicron this time around. We should avoid wasting time and start defending ourselves. It took all of two months for our health authorities to firm up their research of the Delta variant. There was an abundance of waiting and seeing. We should have none of these when we face Omicron.

For Omicron is not our ordinary variant. It has alarmed health authorities in Africa and Europe because of its sheer number of genetic mutations. There are about 50 mutations; 26 are unique to it. It is true more mutations are not necessarily more serious because those mutations could cancel each other out. It could evolve into a more transmissible strain, or into one that evades body immune defenses.

For this reason, more investigation and research would be required to get a full sense of what Omicron is all about. The key issue is whether all available vaccines today will work against it. What could prolong this research is the need to study all, rather than a few,of the known mutations. Focusing on a few of them could be misleading especially when developing the cure.

One such critical mutation is the so-called N501Y, which is considered capable of keeping the virus bound to human cells more tightly. Like the Alpha variant, this makes Omicron extra contagious. With 50 mutations, the combinations could go anywhere. They could result in tighter binding to human cells, or they might end up producing less than the expected milder effect.

Prudence dictates that we should remain extra cautious despite the initial comments of some practitioners from South Africa that the Omicron variant causes “unusual but mild symptoms,” including sore muscles and tiredness. For sure, it would be more prudent if they avoided questioning “why so much hype is being driven” by Omicron. They should have appealed instead to the public to continue abiding by the health protocols precisely because the medical experts are still looking into it. No one wants to be surprised by a ruthless outcome.

Of all professionals, it is the medical experts who should know that it is not hype, but pure concern. The world has suffered more than enough. As of Nov. 30, 262.7 million cases have been recorded with 5.3 million deaths.

Yes, WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for a “rational, proportional risk-reduction measures, but we are not about to go full throttle on a lockdown yet.” The world has more “questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines.” More and more Omicron incidents have been reported, and many jurisdictions have started to close their borders especially to those coming from affected countries in Africa, Europe and travel hubs like Hong Kong.

From among the options, let us err on the side of caution when it comes to COVID-19. There is no consensus yet among vaccine makers. Oxford University has argued that there is yet no evidence that vaccines won’t protect against severe disease from Omicron. But Moderna has warned that COVID-19 shots are less effective against Omicron. The broadsheets last Monday reported that the US’ Dr. Anthony Fauci admitted that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the vaccines.

By all means, let’s build on our emerging resilience from the extensive rollout of the vaccines. Let’s fortify our monitoring and isolating system and strengthen our health facilities. Let’s remain firm in promptly closing our borders to international travels and minimize the collateral damage to the economy. Let’s procure vaccines in big quantity to cover more of our population and administer booster shots. Let’s get our health authorities to intensify their information campaign during decent hours and encourage more discipline among our people.

Most of all, we need every peso of the national budget this year and the next to ensure we have adequate arsenal to fight another battle until we finally win the war.