Art by Athea Monique Z. Gala/The Varsitarian

THE PHILIPPINES must strengthen its genome sequencing efforts to stay ahead of the emergence of Covid-19 variants, such as Omicron, the DNA sequencing program director of the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) said.

Benedict Maralit, a UST alumnus, said genomic sequencing could aid in the country’s battle against Covid-19 by enabling scientists to trace infection origins from samples.

“We need to continue our current sequencing effort to inform us if the Omicron variant, for example, will be entering the Philippines, or how it has entered,” he told the Varsitarian

The B.1.1.529 or Omicron variant was first reported in South Africa on Nov. 24 while the first known infection was from a specimen dated Nov. 9. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a “variant of concern” due to its potential of being more transmissible and having reduced vaccine-induced protection from severe disease.

Maralit said the country needed to expand its genome sequencing facilities to other parts of the country to improve surveillance on these new mutations.

“We need to have a satellite facility to process the local samples and sequence it there so that [we can have] equal sampling capacity in general areas or regions such as in Visayas or Mindanao,” he said.

With the new Omicron variant, WHO advised the public to still wear face masks, get vaccinated, and avoid crowded areas. It also countries to remain vigilant in their surveillance protocols.

What is genome sequencing?

Genomic sequencing is used by scientists to identify the genes of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, and monitor how it mutates over time into new variants.

“Based on our experience, genomic sequencing has helped us in drafting and developing strategies, for example, contact tracing and border control. Without genomic sequencing, we are approaching the Covid-19 management with one eye instead of two,” Maralit said. 

Other applications of genome sequencing in the pandemic could be extended to national border control to limit the spread of the virus from infected people as well as in strategizing community lockdowns, he added.

As of this article’s posting, the country has not recorded any case of the Omicron variant. It has since imposed travel bans on 14 countries including South Africa, Botswana, Italy, and the Netherlands and will last until Dec. 15.


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