A health worker collects a swab sample from a passenger to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus, at a train station in Quezon City, suburban Manila on January 18, 2022. ( AFP / MARIA TAN)

Philippine health department denounces fake Omicron 'alert'

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As Covid-19 ripped through the Philippines, social media posts purported to share an official government health warning about the Omicron variant. The posts are misleading; the health department said it had not issued the warning, which makes a string of baseless claims about the virus.

"DOH OMICRON ALERT," reads the graphic shared on Facebook on January 17, referring to the Philippine Department of Health.

"Omicron infection rate takes 20 seconds to infect adults and children," it reads.

The graphic, which features the DOH logo, also claims that a person infected with the Omicron Covid-19 variant "can be re-infected after three weeks" and that "re-infection is more fatal".

"Omicron infected [sic] is caused by positive people who are freely walking, working without showing symptoms and infecting other people," it adds. "Always wear a mask even at home".

Screenshot of the misleading post taken on January 19, 2022

The graphic was also shared here and here on Facebook.

The message circulated online as an Omicron-driven Covid surge caused widespread disruption to businesses, services and healthcare providers in the Philippine capital region and surrounding provinces.

However, the posts are misleading.

The DOH said that it did not issue the message.

"The Department of Health denounces the card…claiming to be a DOH Advisory," it said in a statement posted on Facebook on January 17.

"Studies on the Omicron variant are still ongoing and no studies have presented any justification on the above claims."

Health experts said the graphic made misleading claims about the Omicron variant.

'20-second' infection?

A World Health Organization (WHO) representative said it was too earlier to tell if the variant "takes 20 seconds to infect adults and children".

"We cannot yet say exactly what this means in terms of exposure time in minutes and seconds", they told AFP on January 26, 2022.

The global health agency said factors such as vaccination, protective measures used and where the infection took place can affect how quickly a person is infected with Covid-19.

"If you follow safety protocols, you won't get infected that easily. But if you don't, then you can get infected in 20 seconds or even less," said Dr. Karl Henson of the nonprofit Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

"There's a lot of factors going into it. Number one, the amount of virus circulating in the air, then whether you're protected, whether you have a mask on. It also has something to do with the air circulation in the room, the ventilation," he told AFP on February 9.

Reinfection risk

The WHO said that more data were needed to better understand the risk of reinfection after recovering from the Omicron variant.

An analysis of 81 studies on Covid-19 reinfections between January 2020 and March 2021 found that Covid-19 reinfections happened on average two months after the initial infection, rather than the "three weeks" mentioned in the graphic.

Henson said that the claim that Omicron reinfection would be "more fatal" was "flat out baseless". He referred to early studies that showed Omicron causes less severe symptoms compared to earlier Covid-19 variants.

"Primarily because in most patients it is limited to the upper airways; it doesn't cause as much pneumonia as the other variants," he said.

"But the factors playing into the severity [of the illness] on a single patient has more to do with the patient's characteristics than the viral characteristics because the bottomline is, they're all Covid."

Asymptomatic transmission

Dr. Rontgene Solante, an infectious diseases expert and member of the Philippine government's vaccine panel, warned that a person infected with Covid-19 -- including the Omicron variant –- could spread it from the first two days of becoming infected, even if they did not display symptoms.

The WHO's website says that data has shown that the first two days are also when patients appear to be "most infectious, just before they develop symptoms".

The agency also said preliminary evidence from South Africa suggested "there is a higher proportion of asymptomatic infections associated with Omicron, which may be contributing to further transmission".

It cautioned that further investigations were needed to see if this was the case in other countries.

Masks at home

Solante recommended that, during a surge in infections, people who leave the house daily continue wearing face masks when they get back home to reduce the risk of infecting the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

The WHO said that unvaccinated people have a greater risk of severe disease and death from the Omicron variant.

Citing early studies from Denmark, Israel, South Africa and the United Kingdom, the agency said: "Although further data are needed from laboratory and epidemiological investigations to better understand Omicron, including the risk of reinfection... these reports suggest that the highest risk of reinfection was associated with unvaccinated individuals."

Vaccination is "highly effective in protecting against severe disease and death" caused by all Covid variants including Omicron, the WHO representative added.