The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has approved the recommendation to retain the National Capital Region (NCR) under alert level 2, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said on Monday.

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All provinces in the country were placed under alert level 2 except for Apayao which is under alert level 3. All highly urbanized cities and independent component cities, as well as Isabela City in Basilan, were also placed under alert level 2.

The alert levels shall take effect from Dec. 1 to 15, Nograles said.

Meanwhile, government experts said it’s only a matter of time before the Omicron variant of the new coronavirus is detected in the country. This variant has yet to be detected in the country, but government experts agree that its entry into the Philippines is only a matter of time.

“So far, out of the more than 18,000 whole genomes sequenced samples of the PGC (Philippine Genome Center) as well as of the Department of Health (DOH), we have yet to detect the B.1.1.529 variant,” Dr. Cynthia Saloma, executive director of the PGC, said in a television interview on Monday, referring to Omicron, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified as a variant of concern.

But she was quick to add that the sample size subjected to whole-genome sequencing was limited due to the downward trend in COVID-19 cases in the country.

Saloma conceded that it was only a matter of time before Omicron would be detected here.

Dr. Alethea de Guzman of the Epidemiology Bureau of the DOH agreed, saying it is likely that Omicron would be found in the country just like the other COVID-19 variants of concern.

“We’re now in a state where we’re expecting it to enter the country anytime,” she told reporters at a media briefing.

She said what matters now is for the country not only to endeavor to prevent the variant from entering but also to ensure that measures are in place once it is detected.

“At any time we should be prepared that it might enter. We might see it in returning overseas Filipinos, we might see it in local cases,” De Guzman said.

“There are measures proposed to be in place in order to buy us time to prepare our local health systems. Thus, there is the need to ensure that all arrivals will be properly screened, tested and quarantined,” she added.

DOH's ‘Four-door strategy’

De Guzman explained that the DOH has a “four-door strategy,” with Door 1 being the imposition of travel bans and restrictions.

“We want to limit people who are coming from areas with local cases to come and reach our borders,” she said.

Door 2 refers to screening, quarantine, and testing at points of entry. Those entering the country’s borders must observe testing and quarantine protocols, she said, adding that anyone testing positive should be isolated and his or her samples sequenced.

Upon the entry of Omicron, Doors 3 and 4 will be in place, which will include strengthening the prevent-detect-isolate-treat-reintegrate strategy and ensuring that local health systems are prepared for a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases and for their monitoring in hospitals.

De Guzman said: “We need to trace previous arrivals from these banned countries for assessment and testing.”

She also noted that initial studies have not yet shown if a certain age group is more vulnerable to the new variant. It has also not been established if Omicron can cause severe illness or if it is more fatal.

“Further studies are needed to better understand Omicron’s transmissibility, infectivity and effect on vaccine efficacy,” De Guzman said.“With 50 mutations overall, 30 of which are in the spike region, it is possible that the Omicron variant may cause increased transmissibility and immune invasion,” she added.

At a press briefing led by acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles, Dr. Edsel Salvana, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines (UP) National Institutes of Health (NIH), said the Omicron variant was still being studied, including the effectivity of current vaccines.

Dr. Eva Maria Cutiongco-dela Paz, vice chancellor for Research of UP Manila and NIH executive director, said: “We don’t know a lot yet about this new variant of concern for us to understand its transmissibility if it can lead to severe disease, and what others are saying like the risk of reinfection and if our vaccines effectivity would be lessened.”

According to an information sheet by the DOH, the Omicron variant was “first detected on Nov. 9, 2021, in Botswana/Hong Kong/South Africa.” The variant has since spread to at least 14 countries.

Source: Inquirer

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