Health Sec. Francisco Duque warned last week that the recently discovered Omicron variant of Covid-19 may soon overwhelm the country’s hospitals.

Compared to the Delta variant which is now a fading threat, Omicron will spread at an even faster rate, Duque said.

The first two cases of the Omicron variant in the country involving a Filipino and a Nigerian national were confirmed by the Department of Health (DOH) last week. The two were placed in isolation but it is not known how many people had interacted with them before they were taken by Health officials to an isolation facility at the Bureau of Quarantine.

Duque said there was a “very high” chance that the latest variant of COVID-19 would soon overwhelm the country’s healthcare system.

He told local media that “Omicron is a very serious threat. It is starting to be clear that it is certainly more transmissible than the Delta variant.”

He added, however, that there is still insufficient data to determine how much more transmissible Omicron is compared to Delta.

Initial data from other parts of the world indicate that Omicron is not as virulent as Delta.

While the new strain may be milder, it spreads much faster than Delta and other earlier variants, according to the Health Secretary.

Unlike the very first cases of COVID-19 in the country detected in March, last year, the two Omicron cases involved individuals who were not traveling together.

The Filipino was a returning overseasbased male worker who arrived from Japan on December 1 via Philippine Airlines flight number PR 0427. A blood sample was collected from him on December 5, and his positive result was determined on December 7. He was placed in isolation on the same date.

While asymptomatic, the patient showed cough and cold symptoms upon arrival.

The second case, on the other hand, was a Nigerian national who arrived from his home country on November 30 and a blood sample was collected from him on December 6. The results were known the next day and he was taken to an isolation facility that same day. Like the first case, he was also asymptomatic.

As of press time, the DOH was still in the process of determining possible close contacts the two had with their co-passengers in their respective flights.

The Health department is studying test results and the health status of all passengers in the two inbound flights to determine if there are other possible cases or if any of the co-passengers showed the usual symptoms of the coronavirus.

Duque said that while the effects of COVID-19 shots on Omicron were still not clear, “the vaccines are still effective against severe, critical (cases), hospitalizations and deaths” based on current date.

He said that unlike the first COVID-19 cases as well as the variants that followed, the Philippines is now “very prepared” to handle the new variant of concern.

“This comes from the fact that last year when we had a surge, we did not have a single vaccine,” he said.

Still, the public should take the usual precautions, Duque said.

“You have to understand that this is also a numbers game,” he said, adding that “even if it is mild, it spreads faster.”

Thus, “the chances of our hospital system getting overwhelmed are very, very, very high when you have more people infected, especially those who are not vaccinated,” said Duque.

The first two confirmed cases were detected by the DOH, the University of the Philippines – Philippine Genome Center, and the University of the Philippines – National Institutes of Health. Also known as B.1.1.529, the two cases of Omicron were detected from 48 samples sequenced on December 14.

On the plus side, the country’s primary public hospital, the Philippine General Hospital in the capital city of Manila which has served as the main facility for coronavirus cases, has not had COVID-19 cases in almost two weeks.