New COVID-19 variant detected in Philippines: Your questions answered
MRT-3 commuters at North Ave. Station enter a train coach on Sept. 14, 2020.
The STAR/Michael Varcas

New COVID-19 variant detected in Philippines: Your questions answered

Gaea Katreena Cabico (Philstar.com) - January 14, 2021 - 12:36pm

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines on Wednesday confirmed its first case of the new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus: a man who returned from the United Arab Emirates.

In recent weeks, Filipinos have been closely watching with concern developments about the COVID-19 variant that continues to tear through the United Kingdom and is popping around the globe.

Still curious about the fast-spreading variant and the first confirmed local case? Here are the answers to some of your questions.

What do we know about the first confirmed case of the new variant?

  • The first confirmed case was identified as a 29-year-old real estate agent who is residing in Quezon City with his girlfriend, mother and two siblings.
  • The man flew to Dubai in UAE on December 27 and returned to Manila on January 7 through Emirates flight EK332.
  • He was accompanied by his girlfriend, who despite testing negative upon arrival, is under “strict quarantine and monitoring.”
  • The patient is also under quarantine.
  • The case allegedly had no travel outside of Quezon City this last December or no known exposure to a confirmed case or a setting with known cases.
  • The couple, while in Dubai, visited malls, groceries and tourist sites claiming to be adhering to minimum health standards.

What about the close contacts?

Contact tracing of the patients close contacts upon his arrival such as the health workers at the isolation where he was brought and those that brought him there was conducted, the Quezon City government said. 

His immediate household contacts were also brought to an isolation facility where they were tested. 

The DOH said it has begun tracking down passengers of Emirates flight EK332. Of the 159 passengers onboard the flight, only 52 have responded to the calls of contact tracers. 

“Those who did not respond had unattended phones, numbers cannot be reached, wrong numbers or they have rejected the calls of contact tracers,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a briefing Thursday.

Is the new variant more dangerous?

Preliminary estimates of scientists and health authorities find the SARS-CoV-2 variant called B117 between 30% and 70% more contagious than other forms of the virus.

But there is no evidence that the variant is more deadly than others.

But why is it a cause for concern?

Experts warned that an increase in the transmission of the variant will result in more people getting infected and sick, which can overwhelm the country’s health system anew. More infections also mean more deaths.

It is also especially concerning considering that health authorities are fearing a post-holiday surge in COVID-19 cases in the country. 

What do local health officials, experts say?

Vegeire said in an interview on ABS-CBN Channel there was “no need to panic” after the detection of the more transmissible variant in the country if the public continues to follow health protocols set and mandated by the national government. 

Dr. Edsel Salvana, an infectious disease specialist, said the country is in a “better position” now than it was in June when it first detected the D614G, which experts also said was more infectious. 

“Of course, we still need to be cautious. But I think we have tools and if everybody cooperates, we can prevent a big surge this time,” he said. 

Experts also said the detection of B117 shows that surveillance systems in the country are working. 

Has the mode of transmission changed?

The DOH stressed that the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 remains the same.

According to the World Health Organization, the transmission of the virus can occur through direct, indirect or close contact with infected people through saliva and respiratory secretions or their respiratory droplets, which are expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or sings.

“This means that the minimum public health standards remain to be the effective measure against the spread of the disease,” the DOH said.

What does the new variant mean for COVID-19 vaccines?

Experts said that the new variant is unlikely to affect the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Associated Press reported that a preliminary study suggests that Pfizer's COVID-19 jab can protect against the variants found in Britain and South Africa. 

“Currently, vaccines are still effective. There is still no evidence that vaccines will not work,” said Dr. Marissa Alejandria, member of the DOH technical advisory group. 

What are the steps being taken by the government?

The DOH vowed to intensify its weekly genomic biosurveillance on incoming passengers, infections at home, those who were re-infected and those with reported clustering of cases.

Hoping to keep the new variant out, the national government closed its to foreigners arriving from over 30 countries. The travel ban will only remain in effect on December 15, Friday. It is still unknown whether the government will extend or lift the travel restrictions. 

Authorities are also keeping an eye on the variants detected in South Africa and Malaysia. 

So what's the bottomline? 

Experts said that viruses, like the SARS-CoV-2, mutate all the time.

Health officials have been pointing out that wearing face masks and shields, physical distancing and proper hygiene are still the best defenses against the spread of COVID-19 while the government still scrambles to secure vaccine supplies for Filipinos. — with report from Christian Deiparine

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