MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Health said Saturday that there is still not enough evidence to conclude that there is local transmission of the highly contagious coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa even after it logged 52 new cases of it the day before.
“We can’t say that just yet,” DOH spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said partly in Filipino during a virtual briefing aired on state-run People’s Television. “Epidemiologic investigation is being undertaken.”
Vergeire said the government and the World Health Organization are working together for the surveillance and analysis of the variant called B.1.351 that is feared to significantly reduce the efficacy of certain COVID-19 vaccines.
“So we would be able to give that kind of information within the coming days if we have completed all the details of those who have been infected with this variant,” she said in Filipino.
Health authorities reported Friday that they have detected 52 new cases of the B.1.351 variant in the country. Forty-one of them indicated that they lived in Metro Manila, while 11 are still being verified whether they are local cases of returning overseas Filipinos.
There are now a total of 58 cases of the B.1.351 variant in the Philippines, with at least three of them considered as local cases.
The B.1.351 variant carries the N501Y mutation, which is also present in the variant first identified in the United Kingdom, and the E484K mutation, which may help the virus dodge some antibodies which should protect people from getting infected again.
The DOH earlier said that while there is no evidence that the B.1.351 variant causes more severe disease, it acknowledged that it “may have an impact on vaccine efficacy.”
The presence of the new coronavirus variants, including one from the UK, in the Philippines could further complicate the pandemic response of the country, which is only beginning vaccinations against COVID-19.
For one, the government is faced with the dilemma of whether to impose stricter community quarantine measures and potentially deal more damage to an already ailing economy, or to retain current quarantine measures at the risk of overwhelming the country’s healthcare capacity.
Vergeire said there are still no talks of imposing stricter city-wide or region-wide quarantine measures, with the national government largely relying on the response of local governments to contain outbreaks within their areas.
She added that while the emergence of new coronavirus variants contribute to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, failure to comply with minimum public health standards like the wearing of masks and face shields, and frequent hand hygiene, also help push the country’s caseload up.
“If we see that there is continued non-compliance to minimum public health protocols, the cases would definitely increase. The variants are just aggravating factors,” Vergeire said. — Xave Gregorio
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