The vaccine industry is alert and ready to respond to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 should it enter the country. Along with the Philippine medical community, it reiterates that the public can still receive ample protection from it through current and future anti-variant countermeasures like rapid changes in the COVID-19 vaccines, a faster vaccination campaign, and the strict observance of health protocols like social distancing.
Enrique Gonzalez, Founder, and Chairman of IP-Biotech (IPB), says that the vaccine providers will be exercising agility to continually respond to the Omicron variant as it evolves. He assures the public that “the world’s vaccine industry is ready to respond with specific Omicron booster shots by making changes to the existing vaccines if the need arises. The production infrastructure is in place, and ramping up for next generations can be a rapid process.”
IPB is the leading vaccine service provider and the local Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) holder of Coronavac’s SINOVAC COVID-19 vaccine which has provided 50% of all COVID-19 vaccines in the Philippines in 2021.
Omicron has struck fear in a global population that is eager and anxious to go back to normal due to its speed of transmission, the large number of mutations it triggers, and the aura of deadly mystery surrounding it. Enrique gives the overview: “The best of nature, adaptation, has been put in our worst enemy, the virus. The level of mutation in Omicron, which right now exhibits an unprecedented number of mutations, shows a trend in terms of the evolutionary path of COVID-19 virus.”
Dr. Noel Miranda, IP Biotech’s Science Adviser, also confirms the need for vaccine providers to continually study and counter-check Omicron because “it’s unexpected emergence warns the world that the occurrence of a worst-case mutation should be an ongoing concern.”
A study by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) says that Omicron may be more infectious compared to the Delta variant; about 30 of its more than 50 mutations are on the spike protein. Omicron takes only 20 days to hit 90% of the genome-sequenced samples, when compared to Delta which takes approximately 100 days.
Miranda points out that the extent and nature of SARS-CoV-2 viral mutations also impact the relative efficacies of the different vaccine platforms. On one hand, gathering data seems to confirm that the protein-based vaccines, with their specific immune-enhancing adjuvants, might carry advantages that keep cellular and humoral immune responses relatively intact to hold Omicron at bay. On the other hand, he cautions that “Omicron is expected to render existing vaccines less effective, but, hopefully, not totally ineffective, especially in continuing to offer protection against hospitalization and death from COVID-19. “
He adds that the alertness that both government and the medical, scientific sectors show toward Omicron must continue. Should they fail in their oversight, Miranda warns, “we better be ready for a more virulent and deadly variant. This highly adaptive SARS-CoV-2 virus is unlikely to be eradicated. One thing is for certain, this highly adaptive SARS-CoV-2 virus is unlikely to be eradicated. Mass vaccination is our tool to afford community protection from life-threatening sickness.”-
Enrique equally stresses that “while current vaccines may be less effective versus the new variants, vaccination is still the best form of protection from severe symptoms—and the only form of protection that we have. As the saying goes, none of us are safe until all of us are safe.”
First line of defense
Some members of the medical community believe that younger children should also be inoculated to protect them from COVID-19. Dr. Benny Atienza, President of the Philippine Medical Association (PMA), says that “while it’s welcome news that minors have been included in the vaccination campaigns, we are yet to see them being rolled out to ages 5 to 11. I am hoping that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will eventually allow the same Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) mechanism for the said demographic. This will be also important in achieving herd immunity.”
The Family Vaccine and Specialty Clinics Inc. (FVSC), which Enrique heads, has pioneered the vaccination of children, covering more than 20 provinces through 40 clinics and subsidizing about 50,000 patient visits per year.
Omicron’s apparent absence in the archipelago also leaves time for preparation. To date, according to Dr. Cynthia Saloma, Philippine Genome Center Executive Director, “we have not detected Omicron in the 18,000 (positive samples) we have sequenced.” Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire says that there have been no sudden COVID-19 spikes in various locations, which is one strong indicator of the presence of the Omicron variant.
As of December 2, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that 23 countries have reported Omicron cases. While those numbers are expected to increase, the Philippines is not on the list.
Enrique points out one advantage in this development: “The Philippines has been spared from the early entry of Omicron. This gives us a time zone arbitrage where we can watch the developments in other countries and learn from their responses.”
Experts also continue to recommend health protocols, along with vaccines, as the first line of defense, regardless of how the variant develops.
Dr. Eric Tayag, Director of the National Epidemiology Center in the Department of Health (DOH), says, “We already know the drill: social distancing; when we don’t feel well, don’t go out; have yourself tested; if we have symptoms, go in isolation. No matter the COVID-19 variant, all these things should be second nature by now.”
The role of the government will be key in preventing or retarding the entry of the Omicron variant in the Philippines. The public and private sectors also need to continue working together to bring in more vaccines and push for fuller inoculation coverage across the country in order to achieve and maintain a high level of herd immunity.
Recognizing that there seems to be an ‘arms race’ to develop a new response to the new Omicron variant among the pharmaceutical companies, Enrique expresses confidence “in the speed of innovation driven by technology. Our ability to innovate through tech will certainly match or outpace that of the virus over the medium term. The world’s collective vaccine and pharma industry will generate multiple solutions and treatments against COVID19 which will ensure we conquer this pandemic.”
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