DOH Dr. Mario Baquilod during his visit to Puerto Princesa City on Monday. (PN File Photo)

The task force in charge of the country’s COVID-19 response is preparing for the likely arrival of the Omicron variant, also known as B.1.1.529, which was recently detected in South Africa and categorized as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Dr. Mario Baquilod, regional director of the Department of Health (DOH) in MIMAROPA, said in an interview Monday that the Philippines, like other nations, is worried about the new SARS-CoV-2 strain, especially since there is currently little information available about it.

However, he stressed that the DOH and the National Task Force (NTF) against COVID-19 are “on alert” for any developments.

“We are still getting more information. Pero as far as I know, wala pa tayo nito sa ating country. Talagang ang ating NTF ay nagpe-prepare for that,” Dr. Baquilod said.

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“As far as the information [that] we have is [concerned, it] is a variant of concern as declared by WHO. We are ready to respond, it is basically the same sa ating minimum health standards and vaccination,” he added.

Following the revelation of the Omicron variant, countries throughout the world have hurried to adopt stricter restrictions again. The European Union, for example, has banned travel to and from at least seven South African nations.

Dr. Baquilod said that they have received information that the nearest country to the Philippines where the variant has been detected is Hong Kong.

“We are all concerned, may mga countries na [that] already reported, and pinakamalapit sa atin ay ang Hong Kong, and we all know na may mga kababayan tayo doon,” he said.

“This is also Christmas season kaya ang iba sa kanila ay umuuwi, so we really have to strictly enforce ‘yong ating mga quarantine rules, regulations and screening,” he added.

When asked whether obligatory face shield regulations would be reinstated as a result of the finding of the Omicron variant, Dr. Baquilod answered it will depend on the country’s overall COVID-19 situation as it evolves.

He emphasized, however, that they still need to receive adequate information regarding the variant.

The WHO said the variant has a huge number of mutations, some of which are potentially harmful. Preliminary research shows that Omicron has a higher risk of reinfection than other variants of concern.

“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” WHO said on November 26.

It said research activities are now being conducted to examine the variant. As warranted, WHO will convey additional results to member states and the general public.

“Once na magkaroon ng worsening condition ay puwedeng ibalik ulit [ang face shields]. But again, it has to have adequate information para ang ating national vaccine center to IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force) to come up with some recommendation. We have to wait,” Dr. Baquilod said.

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