The claim may sound rosy and provide a balm to the public's anxieties, but health experts warn that there is no sound science behind the pronouncements of a pandemic resource person that the COVID-19 Omicron variant is a "natural vaccine," a "blessing" and may be "the beginning of the end of the pandemic."
During a GoNegosyo town hall meeting last Jan. 5, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist and a fellow of independent pandemic monitor OCTA Research, cited a study suggesting that some individuals who have recovered from Omicron have developed antibodies against earlier variants like Delta, Gamma, Beta, Alpha, and D614G.
“We have to realize that Omicron is the beginning of the end of the pandemic because Omicron is going to provide the kind of population immunity that should stabilize our societies and should allow us to reopen,” Austriaco said.
“This is the hope and the prayer. The Omicron is actually a blessing," he added, though noting that the public must still get vaccinated against COVID-19 and exercise caution.
Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, in reaction to Austriaco's words, warned the public against complacency and misinformation, as it could mean "life or death."
"Huwag po tayo magpapahawa dahil sa statements na ganito," Vergeire said in a televised palace briefing on Jan. 7. "Hindi po ganiyan ang direksiyon ng ating response dito."
Vergeire emphasized that Filipinos must work together to curb the spread of infections by getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible and strictly observing public health standards.
"Dapat naiintindihan po natin ang sitwasyon ngayon," she said. "Kailangan pigilan po natin ang ganito kadaming infection para po di tayo magkaroon ng further mutations...which can lead to more fatal outcomes."
Edsel Salvaña of the DOH Technical Advisory Group, meanwhile, pointed out that at the end of the day, the Omicron variant is still a virus that can destroy lives.
"Hindi siya bakuna. Ang mga bakuna natin, very safe at hindi naman siya nakakahawa ng ibang tao," Salvaña said in the same briefing.
He also cast doubts if the Omicron surge would be the last, while also telling the public to not describe it as "mild" in accordance with the World Health Organization (WHO).
"Nakita naman po natin, tuloy-tuloy na ginugulat tayo nitong COVID-19," Salvaña said. "Mahirap na magsabing beginning of the end."
Anna Lisa Ong-Lim, chief of the Infection and Tropical Disease Division of the Philippine General Hospital, acknowledged where Austriaco is coming from, saying the country may just be itching to return to normal again.
"Siyempre, gusto natin na ito na ang huli, wala nang susunod pang variant," Ong-Lim said. "Unfortunately, di pa natin masasabi with certainty na ito na nga ang katapusan ng COVID-19."
"Sana totoo. Sana magdilang-anghel si Father," she added. "Pero siguro, mas maganda pa ring maging maingat."
In a series of tweets on the night of Jan. 6, Austriaco elaborated on his Jan. 5 statements, citing the Spanish Flu of 1918.
I have been asked to explain my comments regarding the Omicron variant acting as a "vaccine" for future variants. There are many who say that this certainly cannot be true..— Nicanor Austriaco OP (@friaronwater) January 6, 2022
He said "there is clear evidence that the first wave of the H1N1 virus, which was a milder variant of the flu, like Omicron is milder for COVID, protected individuals from the more virulent variant that appeared during the second wave."
The priest clarified that getting COVID-19 vaccines and boosters is still the way to go, not "intentionally infecting ourselves with Omicron."
World Health Organization warning
The WHO on Jan. 6 cautioned the public that with billions still unvaccinated worldwide, "there is still plenty of opportunity for this virus to spread and to generate new variants.”
“So unfortunately, it will not be the last variant you hear us discuss. It will not be the last variant of concern,” WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove said. “There is no inevitability that the next variant will be less severe or more severe. We just have to see what happens as this virus evolves."
WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus said there's much downside in "waiting for Omicron to continue spreading in hopes it provided significant levels of protection in a population as it could still lead to many deaths."
As for Michael Ryan, WHO Health Emergencies Program Executive Director, he highlighted that it would be "wishful thinking" to consider Omicron the last.
"We saw with very high levels of transmission of previous variants... how Omicron was able to come in and exploit the immunity gaps that existed, and do exist, around the world," Ryan said.
Nonetheless, Ryan said it's not "premature" for the world to hope for better days.
"We can hope for anything, we should hope for everything," he said. "But the reality is, we’re not doing enough yet globally to be able to say with any degree of certainty that we can avoid the emergence of new variants.”
On Jan. 7, the Philippines logged 21,819 new COVID-19 cases, bringing active infections to over 77,000. Cumulative caseload is already approaching three million.
In a bid to arrest the country's surge in recent cases, several local government units have reimposed Alert Level 3, such as in Laguna, from Jan. 7 to 15; Rizal, Bulacan, and Cavite, from Jan. 5 to 15; and Metro Manila, from Jan. 3 to 15.
Metro Manila also barred unvaccinated residents outside, save for essential travels.