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WHO: Mild infections caused by Omicron may lead to death among vulnerable

Though initial data shows that the Omicron variant causes mild symptoms, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday warned that it may still lead to death among immunocompromised individuals and the elderly.

WHO country representative Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe stressed that the mild infections affecting the elderly and other vulnerable groups may also overwhelm hospitals in the country.

“And so, even if it overall causes mild disease in those vulnerable groups, it could cause severe, moderate-severe, and even death,” Abeyasinghe told CNN Philippines.

“And so we need to be careful in our assessment of saying it doesn’t cause severe disease because it has severe outcomes in some immunocompromised and elderly individuals.”

Abeyasinghe said the variant’s transmissibility, severity, and effect on vaccines remain unknown.

“On the other hand, we don’t know how it will react with vaccines, whether the vaccines will still be able to protect us. What is clear is the existing vaccines will very likely protect people from severe and death,” he said.

Due to this, he called on the government to ramp up its vaccinations for the elderly, the A5 group, and individuals with comorbidities.

Since its detection weeks ago, Abeyasinghe said WHO has confirmed the presence of the Omicron, which has 50 mutations, either in travelers or in locally transmitted cases in 57 countries.

The WHO representative stressed that preparing and delaying for the variant is the way to manage it.

“The good thing in the case of the Philippines is that you had a big outbreak of Delta with a lot of cases and unfortunately a lot of deaths, but that has given you the opportunity to strengthen your health system and prepare,” he said.

“Basically the preparedness is about managing, detecting, improving your surveillance, managing the infections in the hospitals, improving your healthcare capacity, access to oxygen,” Abeyasinghe added.

Abeyasinghe also urged the government to ramp up its surveillance systems amid the threat of the Omicron variant.

“There we see some concerns about the capacity of the system to trace the arrivals and sequence those cases that require sequencing. So there are still areas that we need to improve,” he said.

According to Abeyasinghe, not enough samples are being collected and sent to the Philippine Genome Center for sequencing.

“This is why I said you have the capacity but we need to do better in preparedness by sampling, testing everybody. By testing everybody, we are also saying we need to be testing the most recent arrivals because those some would also lead to having the Omicron variant,” he said.

“We also need to sequence not only people who come from countries with confirmed Omicron variant because we know there is limited sequencing capacity in many countries,” he added.

Further, he urged the government to sequence positive cases in the country.

“But also just to make sure we don’t have it in the country, it could be useful to also sequence some of the positive that we are detecting in the country,” he said.

Abeyasinghe, meanwhile, commended the Philippines for its genome sequencing capacity, saying the country doubled its capacity from 300 to 700 per week to about 1,400.

“Let me start by saying WHO commends the Philippines for its genome sequencing capacity. You are doing a lot more genome sequencing than many other countries in the region,” he said.  —KBK, GMA News