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Something interesting happened this week. As the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus sent governments around the world in a panic, calmer voices said there are indications that though it appears to be highly transmissible, the cases tended to be mild. Data is still coming in and it may take a week or so to fully understand Omicron.
Consider that along with data that the Philippines is experiencing the lowest numbers in new COVID cases since the middle of 2020, and that as OCTA Research said, the Philippines will not likely experience another surge this 202. A return to the three-day quarantine for returning Filipinos is beginning to look a lot like the Christmas we are hoping for.
Early on, there were plenty of caveats about just how mild the Omicron cases tended to be. The data is skewed because the patients tended to be young males, and thus we have yet to see how the variant affected those older and with co-morbidities.
It is also unclear when Omicron first emerged. South Africa reported the existence of the variant on Nov. 24, but it was reported that the Netherlands, as early as Nov. 19 and 23, had patients whose samples contained the variant.
And then there’s this interesting data about sewage. Apparently, a city’s sewage tells us a lot about the prevalence of a disease in the area. The waters from the river in the South African city of Tshwane showed much higher COVID virus levels than the number of cases indicated, which has led some to theorize that the actual number of cases may have been much higher than reported. If Omicron had, indeed, been around earlier than when it was first reported, the cases may have been so mild they went completely under the radar.
The COVID-19 virus continues to surprise us, and not always in a bad way.
I believe the door swings both ways. Mutations can defeat vaccines and induce greater illness or it could make it weaker and allow the human body enough time to adapt to it. Either way, the safest way to hedge our bets is to vaccinate. I am sure we have heard of cases of perfectly healthy people succumbing to COVID, and octogenarians suffering only mild cases. In many instances, there was one big difference: vaccination.
Our friends at OCTA Research say that better genetic surveillance in the Philippines can help us arrive at more conclusive evidence. In fact, the closest we have to such is data coming out of Tigaon, Camarines Sur, which actually noted how many among their 478 COVID patients were vaccinated and how many were unvaccinated, and which ones died. The answer is 30 among the unvaccinated died versus zero among the vaccinated. Imagine if we could actually go down to the level of what variants caused such deaths, and how differently did each variant affect the vaccinated and unvaccinated?
Of course, this is all amateur sleuthing on my part. I have my biases, which are partly borne out of a desire for the good news that Omicron can actually be a godsend, that it will finally be that one variant – the good one – that can give people natural immunity and finally allow COVID to make this pandemic endemic, meaning, that while it is not completely eliminated, with more people vaccinated and more people being exposed to the virus, but not becoming ill, we will see fewer cases and it will be just one of those seven human coronaviruses we can live with.
For now, like the virus, we must also constantly adapt. When we spoke of herd immunity, we were talking of vaccinating 50 percent, which then became 70, then 80, and we spoke less of herd immunity, but population protection. These days, I am inclined to go for an almost-100 percent vaccination rate if that is what it would take to hedge our bets against spikes in infection.
I could also take it a step further and say we must also adjust our responses accordingly. To paraphrase a popular saying: Not every problem is a nail, and not every solution is a hammer. We learned as much when we realized that we can control outbreaks through granular lockdowns rather than crippling the economy using total lockdowns. We found out that, using data, we can head off a surge through a timely lockdown, just like we did back in August. And that maybe, given all the data pointing to the fact that the Philippines will not likely experience another surge this 2021, a three-day quarantine will do the job as well as a five-day quarantine, the only difference being there will be happier reunions for many Filipino families when we require only the three-day quarantine.
Because that is how science works. As you find out more, you are ready to question even your own hypotheses. It’s also how it is in business. You find that a product isn’t selling, you try and ask why, and tweak it as you go. Or get rid of it completely. We must resist falling in love with our own ideas and clinging to old solutions. We evolve. Just like COVID.