The World Health Organization has classified the COVID-19 Omicron variant as a "variant of concern" due to its number of mutations and early evidence of increased reinfection, leading governments around the world to put up pre-emptive measures.
DOH says no case of Omicron detected in PH to date
No case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant has been detected in the Philippines as of Friday, Dec. 3, Department of Health (DOH) spokesperson Rosario Vergeire said.
In a media briefing, Vergeire said no case of the Omicron variant has been recorded from the 250 Filipinos and four foreigners who arrived from South Africa from Nov. 15 to 29.
Vergeire said the Philippines has learned its lessons from the rise of COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant in addressing the threats of the Omicron variant.
“Mas mataas na ang bakunado sa bansa. That, I believe, will work. Handa na ang ating mga ospital. May mga kamang nakastandby at in-intensify natin ang border controls," she added."
The DOH spokesperson also noted that despite the threat of the Omicron variant, the Philippines “can’t close our doors out of fear.” “We can’t close our doors to the rest of the world out of fear. The threat is there, but if we are prepared, we can be assured we are protected.”
Vergeire said the Philippine Genome Center in Visayas and Mindanao may start genome sequencing efforts in the first week of January.
Despite Omicron surge, S.Africa so far sees mild symptoms
Omicron is fueling a steep surge in infections in South Africa but relatively few people are being hospitalised, experts said Thursday (Dec. 3 Philippine time), as patients so far reported mild symptoms.
The country recorded 11,535 new cases Thursday, mostly in the epicenter Gauteng, the province home to the biggest city Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.
That's five times as many cases as were reported just one week ago, when South African scientists alerted the world to the new variant.
Three quarters of new cases in South Africa are now Omicron.
But deaths and hospitalizations so far are rising at a much lower rate.
Experts caution that there is still much to learn, but credit vaccinations with preventing more cases of severe illness.
"There is an increase in COVID-19 admissions, but not to the point we have seen" in previous outbreaks, said Mary Kawonga, a doctor who heads a provincial COVID advisory council.
"Hospitalisations are increasing by a much lower rate than the cases and at much lower rate than we saw in the third wave," she told a news conference.
That's partly because many of the infected people are young, and younger people have generally shown milder symptoms throughout the pandemic.
While only about one in four South Africans are fully vaccinated, the rates are higher among older people who are mostly prone to suffer serious illness if they become infected.
"We believe the number of cases will increase exponentially in all provinces of the country," said Anne von Gottberg, an expert at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
"We believe that vaccines will still, however, protect against severe disease," she added.
But so far, many cases only suffer a headache or runny nose -- and sometimes nothing at all. (AFP)
Reinfections three times more likely with Omicron—South African research
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—A preliminary study by South African scientists published Thursday, Dec, 2, suggests the Omicron variant is three times more likely to cause reinfections compared to the Delta or Beta strains.
The findings, based on data collected by the country's health system, provides the first epidemiological evidence about Omicron's ability to evade immunity from prior infection.
The paper was uploaded on a medical preprint server and has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Japan eases blanket ban on new incoming flight bookings
Japan has softened its suspension of all new incoming flight bookings to make it easier for citizens to return, the government said Thursday (Dec. 2), a day after it announced the move prompted by worries about the Omicron coronavirus variant.
The transport ministry abruptly said Wednesday it was asking airlines to stop taking all new incoming flight reservations for a month, in a surprise move affecting citizens and foreign residents.
But on Thursday, government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said it would be amended.
"This request caused confusion among those affected and so the prime minister instructed the transport ministry to examine the issue and consider the needs of Japanese citizens hoping to return home," he told reporters.
As a result, the ministry "asked airlines to cancel the blanket suspension of new reservations for international flights to accommodate Japanese hoping to return home", he added.
Japan has had tight border restrictions throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, barring almost all foreign arrivals.
It had begun to ease those rules slightly last month to allow some students and business travellers entry, but reversed that decision after the emergence of the Omicron variant.
It has also barred all non-citizens from entering the country if they are coming from 10 southern African countries.
All arrivals in Japan must quarantine for 14 days at home, with people coming from dozens of locations required to spend between three and 10 days of that two-week period in designated facilities.
After a summer surge in cases, Japan is registering only double-digit infections nationwide most days, and has logged around 18,360 deaths during the pandemic.
Around 77 % of the country's population is now fully vaccinated, and booster shots began rolling out on Wednesday for people who received their second dose at least eight months ago. (AFP)
US announces first Omicron case in traveler returning from S.Africa
The United States on Wednesday (Dec. 2 Philippine time) announced its first confirmed case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant had been detected in California, in a fully vaccinated traveler who had recently returned from South Africa and was recovering from mild symptoms.
Top health official Anthony Fauci said authorities "knew it was just a matter of time" before the strain was found in the country, reminding Americans that vaccination, boosters and masking in indoor public settings remained the best way to stay protected.
According to a statement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the person returned from South Africa on November 22, and their close contacts have all tested negative.
Speaking to reporters, Fauci added that the patient tested positive on November 29, and that they had not received a booster, to the best of his knowledge.
Some early press reports regarding the Omicron variant have suggested it might confer more mild illness, but Fauci cautioned reading too much into these until more hard data was available.
"We feel good that this patient not only had mild symptoms, but actually the symptoms appear to be improving," he said.
"But as we said, there's a lot of information that is now evolving out of countries like South Africa that have a much larger number of individuals" with the variant, he added.
Such data should follow in the coming weeks and months.
While the person involved was fully vaccinated, Fauci stressed a COVID booster remained a good idea because it raises the number of overall antibodies in a person's immune system, some of which will remain effective at stopping new variants.
"Our experience with variants such as the Delta variant, is that even though the vaccine isn't specifically targeted to the Delta variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get spillover protection," he said.
Fauci also defended the travel ban the US had placed on southern African countries, which UN Chief Antonio Guterres has slammed as "unfair" and "ineffective."
"We needed to buy some time to be able to prepare, understand what's going on," he said.
"We wanted to make sure that we didn't all of a sudden say it's like anything else, don't worry about it, and then all of a sudden, something unfolds in front of you that you're really not prepared for. So we look at this as a temporary measure."
To prepare for Omicron, the US is planning tougher testing and weighing quarantine requirements for international travelers arriving in the country, including taking a COVID-19 test one day prior to departure, the CDC said Wednesday. (AFP)
IATF targets second round of 'Bayanihan, Bakunahan’ on Dec. 15-17
The government is planning another round of "Bayanihan, Bakunahan" COVID-19 vaccination drive from Dec. 15 to 17 to meet its goal of inoculating 54 million people towards the end of the year.
The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) has yet to formalize the recommendation but is already studying it in light of the growing risk of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Use of face shields not yet recommended despite Omicron variant threat—WHO
The World Health Organization (WHO) said mandating the use of face shields again is still “premature” despite the threats of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron.
During the Laging Handa press briefing on Nov. 30, the WHO country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said they are not recommending for now reinstating the mandatory use of face shields.
He also noted that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted through close contact and not by air.
“This is why we emphasize that what is important is the physical distancing, the face masking, and hand hygiene,” Abeyasinghe said.
Pfizer seeks US approval for COVID boosters for ages 16-17
Pfizer announced Tuesday (Dec. 1 Philippine time) it was seeking US authorization for COVID booster shots among adolescents aged 16 and 17, as concerns grow about the impact of the new Omicron variant.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has so far only granted emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for boosters to people aged 18 and over, six months after their primary series of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccine, or two months after the Johnson & Johnson shot.
"Today, we submitted a request to the @US_FDA to expand the emergency use authorization of a booster dose of our COVID-19 vaccine to include 16- and 17-year-olds," Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla wrote on Twitter.
Today, we submitted a request to the @US_FDA to expand the emergency use authorization of a booster dose of our COVID-19 vaccine to include 16- and 17-year-olds. It is our hope to provide strong protection for as many people as possible, particularly in light of the new variant.— Albert Bourla (@AlbertBourla) November 30, 2021
"It is our hope to provide strong protection for as many people as possible, particularly in light of the new variant."
Experts are concerned that the pattern of mutations detected on the Omicron variant will mean that the protection generated by the current generation of vaccines may take a partial hit.
What is known, and not known, so far about new COVID variant Omicron
Scientists are now working round the clock to analyse the variant and try to understand its behaviour.
Here is a brief explainer of what is known so far about Omicron -- days after it emerged -- as shared by scientists.
Omicron in Europe before South Africa reported first cases
The Omicron coronavirus variant was present in Europe before the first cases were reported in South Africa, new data from the Netherlands showed Tuesday, Nov. 30 as Latin America reported its first two cases in Brazil.
In the week since the new virus strain was reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa, dozens of countries around the world have responded with travel restrictions -- most targeting southern African nations. (AFP)
China says Omicron will 'lead to challenges' for Winter Olympics
China warned Tuesday that the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the COVID 19 virus would cause challenges in hosting next February's Winter Olympics in Beijing.
"I think it will definitely lead to challenges linked to prevention and control," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, adding that Beijing "appreciates the efforts by South Africa in offering timely information" on the variant. (AFP)
First Omicron case detected in Japan
Japan on Nov. 30 confirmed its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant, a day after authorities announced new COVID border restrictions.
"Regarding the traveller arriving from Namibia, it was confirmed to be a case of Omicron after analysis at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases," government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.
"This is the first Omicron case confirmed in Japan," he said, adding that the infected traveller, a man in his 30s, is now in isolation at a medical facility.
The case was flagged during routine testing at an airport. Japan requires all arrivals to be tested before travelling to the country and when they land.
The announcement came a day after Japan tightened its border rules again, barring all new foreign arrivals just weeks after relaxing tough regulations to allow some students and business travellers entry.
The new rules mean only Japanese citizens and existing foreign residents can enter the country, with few exemptions, and those coming from areas with known Omicron cases require hotel quarantines ranging from three to 10 days.
Japan has recorded just over 18,300 coronavirus deaths during the pandemic, while avoiding tough lockdowns.
After a slow start, its vaccination programme picked up speed and nearly 77 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. (AFP)
NCR to remain under Alert Level 2 until Dec. 15 amid Omicron threat
Metro Manila will remain under the Alert Level 2 lockdown classification until Dec. 15, as approved by the country's Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) according to Cabinet Secretary and acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles.
Under Alert Level 2, establishments or activities are allowed to operate at a maximum of 50% indoor venue capacity for fully vaccinated individuals, including those below 18 years old who are unvaccinated. 70% outdoor venue capacity is also allowed given that all employees of the establishments are fully inoculated.
Biden says Omicron 'not a cause for panic' as G7 urges action
G7 health ministers on Nov. 30 called for "urgent action" to combat the newly identified Omicron COVID-19 variant spreading across the world as US President Joe Biden said the strain is "not a cause for panic".
Australia and Japan led the growing list of countries imposing fresh travel restrictions or slamming shut their borders as the new strain identified last week spreads rapidly to Europe, Asia and North America.
However Biden told Americans he did not foresee new lockdowns or extending travel restrictions for now because of Omicron.
While no deaths have yet been reported from Omicron, and it remains unclear how infectious and how resistant the strain may prove to vaccines, its emergence underscores how besieged the world remains by COVID-19, nearly two years after the first cases were recorded.
Many governments, particularly in western Europe, had already struggled with rapid rises in cases and have reintroduced mandatory mask-wearing, social-distancing measures, curfews or lockdowns -- leaving businesses fearing another grim Christmas.
Following emergency talks, G7 health ministers said "the global community is faced with the threat of a new, at a first evaluation, highly transmissible variant of COVID-19, which requires urgent action."
The World Health Organization said the overall risk from Omicron was "very high" and warned that any major surge would put pressure on health systems and cause more deaths.
"If another major surge of COVID-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe," the WHO cautioned, concluding that "the overall global risk related to the new VOC (variant of concern) Omicron is assessed as very high."
Scientists in South Africa said they had detected the new variant with at least 10 mutations, compared with three for Beta or two for Delta -- the strain that hit the global recovery and sent millions worldwide back into lockdown.
However, South African doctor Angelique Coetzee, who raised the alarm over Omicron, said the cases she saw suggested the symptoms were milder than other variants.
Biden stressed that the United States was in a good position to control Omicron's spread.
"We have more tools today to fight the variant than we've ever had before," he said, adding that his chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci expects current vaccines to work against the new variant, with boosters enhancing protection. (AFP)
Pfizer already working on COVID vaccine targeting Omicron—CEO
Pfizer has already started working on a version of its Covid-19 vaccine specifically targeting the new Omicron variant in case the current inoculation is not effective against the latest strain, the US drugmaker's CEO Albert Bourla said Monday.
Bourla told CNBC that his company on Friday began testing the current vaccine against the Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa and has reignited fears of a global wave of Covid-19 infections.
"I don't think the result will be the vaccines don't protect," Bourla said.
PH gov't backtracks, suspends decision to allow vaccinated tourists entry
The Philippines has temporarily suspended a decision to allow fully vaccinated tourists entry in a bid to prevent a new, heavily mutated coronavirus variant taking off in the country where most of the population remains unvaccinated.
It comes as the Southeast Asian nation on Nov. 29 launched a three-day vaccination drive targeting nine million people as young as 12 in an effort to accelerate the roll-out of jabs.
"The IATF deemed it necessary to suspend the entry of foreign tourists, given worldwide concerns over the Omicron variant," Bureau of Immigration commissioner Jaime Morente said, using the acronym for the task force.
WHO warns COVID variant Omicron risk 'very high'
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Monday, Nov. 29, the new COVID-19 Omicron variant poses a "very high" risk globally, despite uncertainties about the danger and contagion levels of the new strain.
The UN health agency said the COVID strain first discovered in southern Africa was a "highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations... some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility."
"The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high," WHO cautioned in a technical note.
To date, no deaths connected with the Omicron variant have been reported, it added.
But even if the new variant does not prove more dangerous or deadly than previous ones, if it spreads more easily it will spark more cases and more pressure on health systems, and thus more deaths, the organisation said.
"If another major surge of COVID-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe," it said, concluding that "the overall global risk related to the new VOC (variant of concern) Omicron is assessed as very high."
WHO said countries should enhance their surveillance to try to get a clear overview of where and how fast it is spreading.
It also urged accelerated vaccination against COVID, especially among vulnerable populations who have yet to receive any jabs.
But it has cautioned against imposing travel bans, fearing that blocking travel from countries where new variants are first spotted could be unfair and dissuade surveillance.
"With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity," said WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti.
A growing list of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including Britain, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States. (AFP)
PAL issues new travel guidelines in light of Omicron variant
Flag carrier Philippine Airlines issued amended instructions for inbound overseas travelers on Nov. 29, in accordance with the country's coronavirus task force's expansion of countries included in the high-risk "red" classification.
Passengers should follow the following guidelines, according to PAL:
Entry protocols for nations or territories in the "green" and "yellow" zones:
- Those on the "green" list will now be put to the same isolation and diagnostic measures as those on the "yellow" list.
- Passengers from Hong Kong must follow the "yellow" list protocols.
- All incoming visitors must conform with the testing and quarantine protocols for "yellow" list nations in all entry points, according to the IATF, except for countries on the "red" list.
For Filipinos living abroad, OFWs, or eligible foreigners entering from the "green" and "yellow" countries:
Protocols for “yellow” list countries" except for countries under the "red" list
- Travelers from Hong Kong shall comply with protocols for "yellow" list
Overseas Filipinos, OFWs, eligible foreigners arriving from "green" and "yellow" countries:
- For fully vaccinated travelers with a negative RT-PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to departure:
- Facility-based quarantine until the release of negative results
- 3rd day swabbing
- Self-monitoring until 14th day from arrival
Without a negative RT-PCR test:
- Facility-based quarantine until the release of negative results
- 5th day swabbing
- Home quarantine until the 10th day from arrival
For travelers who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or whose vaccination status cannot be independently validated:
- Facility-based quarantine until the release of negative results
- 7th day swabbing
- Home quarantine until the 14th day from arrival
The following countries have been added to the extended list of red countries:
- Czech Republic
- The Netherlands
- South Africa
Filipinos coming via government- or non-government-initiated repatriation and Bayanihan flights may be permitted admission, according to PAL, subject to the red list's current protocols, which include:
- 14-day facility-based quarantine
- despite a negative RT-PCR result, testing should be on the seventh day, with day 1 being the date of arrival
The IATF has also halted Resolution 150-A, which prohibits fully vaccinated international travelers from non-visa-required countries from entering the green list, according to the airline.
According to PAL, it flies to the following nations on the green list:
- Hong Kong
- Mainland China
- Saudia Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
Travelers who prefer to reschedule, exchange tickets to travel vouchers, or receive a refund can do so, as per PAL.
Japan to bar new foreign arrivals over virus variant
Japan will reinstate tough border measures, barring all new foreign arrivals over the Omicron COVID variant, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Nov. 29, just weeks after a softening of strict entry rules.
"We will ban the (new) entry of foreigners from around the world starting from November 30th," Kishida told reporters.
Japan's borders have been almost entirely shut to new overseas visitors for most of the pandemic, with even foreign residents at one point unable to enter the country.
In early November, the government announced it would finally allow some short-term business travellers, foreign students and other visa holders to enter the country, while continuing to bar tourists.
Tokyo had already announced on Friday it would require travellers permitted to enter Japan from six southern African countries to quarantine in government-designated facilities for 10 days on arrival. The step was expanded to a total of nine countries over the weekend.
That measure now affects travellers coming from South Africa and neighbouring Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.
Kishida said that further quarantine restrictions would be imposed on arrivals from an additional 14 countries and regions where the variant has been detected, without giving further details.
The prime minister said Japan is "in a stronger position against the Omicron variant than other countries," citing voluntary mask-wearing and self-restraints about risk behaviours.
Japan has recorded just over 18,300 coronavirus deaths during the pandemic, while avoiding tough lockdowns. After a slow start, the country's vaccination programme picked up speed, with 76.5 percent of the population now fully inoculated.
It has not detected any Omicron cases but the National Institute of Infectious Diseases is analysing a case of a traveller from Namibia who recently tested positive for the coronavirus.
Kishida said he recognised there "might be criticism" that the border tightening was "too cautious when we don't have a full understanding of the situation."
"I take full responsibility for that," he added. (AFP)
IATF expands travel ban, considering reinstating face shield mandate
The Inter-Agency Task Force has barred more countries from entering due to the threat of the Omicron variant, while also considering the reimposition of the face shield mandate as an added protection.
The IATF has placed more countries in the “red list,” or high-risk areas for COVID-19, over the weekend.
After banning seven African countries from entering the Philippines, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases has added seven more European countries namely Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy to the aforementioned list.
Additionally, National Task Force (NTF) policy chief implementer Carlito Galvez, Jr. said they are also looking into the possibility of putting back the face shield requirement for people outdoors.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Nov. 15 earlier lifted the requirement of using face shields in public spaces, but would remain mandatory in certain high-risk areas.