FILE PHOTO (Photo by Camille Abiel H. Torres/ The Varsitarian)

LIFTING the mandatory wearing of face masks indoors should be contingent on people knowing how to protect themselves against Covid-19, including getting vaccinated, a UST molecular biologist said.

President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. issued Executive Order (EO) No. 7 on Oct. 28 allowing the voluntary wearing of face masks in such situations.

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., a professor at the UST Department of Biological Sciences, said he was also recommending the lifting of the mask mandate. 

“But we educate our people so that they will be able to make healthy decisions, including getting vaccinated and boosted and wearing masks when they are vulnerable,” Austriaco told the Varsitarian

“We should still encourage those who are vulnerable to wear masks if they believe they need a mask, but the need for a mask mandate has faded into the past.”

Citing Singapore, which stopped requiring its citizens to wear face masks even indoors with some exceptions on Aug. 29, Austriaco said that face masks have “very little effect on community spread and transmission” of Covid-19.

Marcos Jr’s EO stated that people must still wear masks in healthcare facilities, medical transport vehicles, and public transportation.

Those with co-morbidities and other vulnerable people, like the elderly, pregnant women, and unvaccinated and symptomatic individuals, were also “encouraged” to wear masks.

The molecular biologist added that Filipinos must also start learning to live with Covid-19 as it will stay “for the next thousand years.”

“If you are worried about Covid now, it will not change. If you’re saying, okay, we cannot open now, then I will say, maybe 10 years from now, because it’s not going to get better than this… We will not be able to get rid of Covid,” he said.

“We will be getting Covid several times, probably every year. We will get Covid now for a few years. So, at that point, all of our bodies will just get used to getting Covid. It’s not something we’re going to be scared about.”

On Sept. 12, Marcos removed the mask mandate for open spaces, outdoor areas, and crowded spaces with good ventilation through EO No. 3.

The UST Office of the Secretary General made wearing face masks optional in non-crowded outdoor areas of the University a day after.

The Philippines recorded 20,227 active Covid-19 cases on Oct. 31.

A total of 11,995 cases were logged from Oct. 17 to 23. The average daily cases were 1,714 that week, 22 percent lower than the previous week’s average of 2,188 cases. 

As of Oct. 27, over 73.5 million Filipinos have already been fully-vaccinated against Covid-19, while only about 20.5 million have received booster doses.

New threat

Returning to complete normalcy will not harm Filipinos due to the “strengthened immunity wall,” Austriaco said. 

However, they must still get their booster shots, especially with the new and highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Although Austriaco said the XBB variant is more transmissible and vaccine evasive, it is also Omicron’s “mildest” variant.

“If you are vaccinated or got Omicron before, you can get this again… But again, it should not be a concern because even if we get it, it will be mild. If you got vaccinated, boosted, and sick [with Covid], your defenses are quite strong,” Austriaco said.

The priest-scientist said he and his team are still developing the oral yeast vaccine for Covid-19, which can be drunk like the Japanese probiotic drink Yakult.

“We are still developing the yeast oral vaccine because it appears that we will have to get boosters every six months to every year. It appears there’s going to be a new variant. So we are trying to develop a cheap, shelf-stable, yet effective vaccine that will keep our boosted numbers up. That’s the hope,” Austriaco said.

Austriaco will conduct a direct challenge trial next summer by vaccinating mice and exposing them to Covid-19 to gauge the oral vaccine’s effectiveness. N.G.C. de Leon


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