Threat of Omicron highlights need to improve bio-surveillance and genome sequencing capabilities — Angara

Threat of Omicron highlights need to improve bio-surveillance and genome sequencing capabilities — Angara

By Ernie Reyes

MANILA — Senator Sonny Angara today reiterated the need to improve the country’s capabilities on genome sequencing and biosurveillance in order to respond faster to health threats brought about by the new variants of the COVID-19 virus.

More countries are reporting positive cases of the new Omicron variant and the Department of Health (DOH) is currently investigating the possible entry of the same in the Philippines.

“There is little information available on the Omicron variant at this time but the health experts are one in treating this as a variant of concern. We should remain vigilant and not be complacent especially now that we have started to open up our economy and are allowing more people to move around more freely in public,” Angara said.

“But what is more critical now is our ability to detect these new variants and to come up with the necessary precautions with haste,” the chairman of the Committee on Finance added.

Last June, Angara filed Senate Resolution 759 to look into the current state of COVID-19 biosurveillance and genome sequencing in the country in order to improve the identification and classification of new COVID-19 variants and consequently, strengthen the country’s COVID-19 response.

At the time the resolution was filed, the country evaluates a mere 750 samples per week or less than one percent of the recorded cases nationwide. This is way below the ideal sequencing rate of five percent as indicated by the Philippine Genome Center of the University of the Philippines.

The DOH has also reported that Regions V (Bicol), VIII (Eastern Visayas), IX (Zamboanga Peninsula), and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao are having difficulties in submitting COVID-19 samples for genome sequencing due to transportation issues and the lack of sufficient laboratories.

The World Health Organization has stated that the rapid generation and sharing of virus genomic sequences provides vital information on the transmission of the new variants and for the fine-tuning of the clinical and epidemiological strategies being undertaken.

In the case of the DOH, it has an epidemiology and surveillance program that could help in preventing and controlling outbreaks, as well as detecting and responding to public health threats.

The Senate, in its version of the 2022 national budget, provided a substantial increase in the epidemiology and surveillance program of the DOH as part of the overall effort to strengthen the government’s response to the pandemic.

“The faster our health authorities will be able to detect, identify and track these cases with the new variants of COVID, including Omicron, the higher our chances of preventing its transmission in our shores and in sustaining our efforts to revive the economy,” Angara said. (ai/mtvn)

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