Lessons learned from Delta useful in tackling Omicron

Published December 5, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Manila Bulletin


The World Health Organization (WHO) has tagged the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, also known as B.1.1.529, as a variant of concern. It has also become a cause of action by many states that are determined to stave off a reprise of the Delta variant’s deadly onslaught a few months ago.

It would take at least another week before more definite answers could be given to three important questions: “Is it more transmissible? Does it cause more severe disease? Can it evade our immune systems?”

Framed more appropriately by scientists, the most crucial question is: “Do people who get infected with this variant, despite having been previously infected or vaccinated, develop any serious disease?”

Compared to Delta that had only ten unique spike mutations, Omicron has 50, including around 30 on its spike protein, which the virus uses to enter cells. While some of these mutations had already been found in other variants, Omicron has at least 26 unique features that are totally new.

Hence, its discovery has sparked a fresh wave of anxiety that has prompted many governments to impose severe restrictions on international and cross-border travelers. According to the WHO, Omicron has been detected in at least 23 countries — and this number is bound to increase further.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, says that efforts must be focused on answering the most relevant question: What could be done to slow down Omicron’s transmission?

The WHO pins Omicron’s emergence on low vaccination rates and “vaccine inequity in poor countries.” Only one in four persons in South Africa, where it was first detected is vaccinated. In contrast, fully vaccinated persons in the United States and Britain are being urged to get booster shots.

Given the limited information on Omicron, experts believe that vaccines will likely continue to provide protection; vaccine pioneers Pfizer and Moderna have begun preparing Omicron-specific formulations. The Food and Drug Administration has signaled “it will require only small trials, confirming safety and immunogenicity, to authorize boosters against new variants.” Early reports indicate that those infected by Omicron show relatively mild symptoms and that the fewer severe cases are generally unvaccinated persons.

In the Philippines today, there is cautious optimism that the prevailing benign scenario could be sustained. Falling back on the lessons learned in taming the Delta variant, the acceleration of vaccination is by far the most effective antidote. The just-concluded national vaccination days resulted in the vaccination of 7,628,432 persons, a significant increment that would boost overall community protection.

Further tightening of health and safety protocols must be pursued. Despite the fact that for nine consecutive days the country has registered less than a thousand new cases a day, there must be renewed emphasis on improving the testing and surveillance infrastructure. Masking, physical distancing and minimization of close contact in closed spaces must be maintained.

As it has been emphasized by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: ‘We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron.”