MANILA – The Philippines is seeing what may possibly be its biggest surge in Covid-19 infections, fuelled by the Omicron variant that could be the dominant strain by this month.
Independent researchers said the current surge was moving twice as fast as the wave of infections late last year caused by another highly contagious variant Delta.
They said the reproduction rate – which measures how fast a virus is spreading or receding – had hit 4 from less than 1 just two weeks ago. A rate of 1 means an outbreak is under control. The Philippines recorded a 2 at the peak of its Delta surge.
A senior health official said Omicron could be the dominant strain in three to four weeks, displacing Delta.
The Health Ministry on Monday (Jan 3) reported that Omicron was already accounting for close to 30 per cent of samples sequenced.
Caseloads hit 4,600 on Sunday, from fewer than 500 on Dec 25, as the positivity rate – the proportion of those tested found to have been infected – rose to 10.8 per cent from less than 1 per cent a week earlier.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said at a news briefing that with cases growing fivefold in the past two weeks, the Philippines was again at a “high risk” for infections.
Dr Edsel Salvana, an infectious disease expert and an adviser to the Health Ministry, said while there has yet to be “definitive evidence” of an Omicron-fuelled community transmission, “there’s a possibility that Omicron is already circulating”. This is based on the number of people with infections, especially among the vaccinated and those who already had their booster shots, and the exponential growth in cases, “though we still don’t know the proportion”, he added.
With roughly 2.84 million confirmed cases and 51,504 deaths so far, the Philippines has the second highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in South-east Asia, after Indonesia.
Daily infections had surged to new highs after the government eased quarantine curbs, as an outbreak set off by the Delta variant receded.
Shopping malls, restaurants, groceries, gaming arcades and cinemas saw large crowds, as Filipinos stepped up Christmas and New Year celebrations after over two years of sweeping restrictions.
Most cases have been in Metro Manila – an urban sprawl of 16 cities that is home to over 13 million. There were 3,317 new infections on Jan 2, up from just 97 on Dec 20. The area tallied a total of 10,292 new cases in the past two weeks.
But with 95 per cent of the region’s population having at least one dose of a vaccine, the government is confident a majority of cases will be mild or moderate, and hospitals will not be overwhelmed with patients with severe symptoms.