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New coronavirus variant in Philippines as early as December 10
People are seen flocking to Divisoria in Manila in this November 2020 photo, causing the DOH to remind to public to stay away from crowded areas
The STAR/Edd Gumban

New coronavirus variant in Philippines as early as December 10

Xave Gregorio (Philstar.com) - January 23, 2021 - 2:06pm

MANILA, Philippines — The new coronavirus variant, B.1.1.7, which is feared to be more infectious, has been in the country over a month before the Department of Health reported the first case of the mutated virus, but experts affiliated with DOH insist that the country was still early to detect the new variant.

DOH Epidemiology Bureau director Alethea De Guzman told a media briefing on Saturday that samples from one of the 16 new B.1.1.7 cases reported late Friday evening by the DOH were collected on Dec. 10, 2020, four days before the United Kingdom, where the new variant was first identified, reported the mutation to the World Health Organization.

The DOH only reported the first case of the new coronavirus variant on January 13 in a 29-year-old real estate agent who arrived in the country on January 7 from a business trip in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Despite the one-month lag, experts in the DOH’s technical advisory group said that the country was still early to identify the new variant.

“We’re not late in identifying the variant,” said John Wong, founder of private research firm EpiMetrics. “If you compare ourselves with the UK, which was the first country to identify it … it took them nearly three months to detect it.”

Infectious diseases specialist Edsel Salvaña backed Wong and explained that the Dec. 10, 2020 sample is part of old samples dating as far back as October which were sequenced to check for the new coronavirus variant.

“These are samples that we actually looked back to to make sure that there is no widespread transmission in the country,” Salvaña said.

He added partly in Filipino, “So there was one sample, but aside from that it looks like there is no more anywhere else.”

No evidence of community transmission

The country’s earliest case of the new coronavirus variant, a 23-year-old man from Calamba, Laguna, did not have any known contact with a COVID-19 patient nor a travel history outside of the Philippines, according to the DOH.

Another one of the 16 new B.1.1.7 cases, a patient from La Trinidad, Benguet who is still in a temporary treatment and monitoring facility in the northern province, also has no known contact and no travel history outside the country, the DOH said.

It also said that the exposure and travel history of 12 of the 16 cases which were detected in Bontoc, Mountain Province is still unknown.

DOH spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire explained that there appears to be a high number of cases of the new coronavirus variant in the northern part of the country because the DOH’s office in the Cordillera Administrative Region sent out more than 300 samples to be checked for the mutation.

Salvaña and Research Institute for Tropical Medicine director Celia Carlos said that it is still too early to say that there is community transmission of the new variant.

“Right now we just have one cluster that we know that cases are all related,” Salvaña said partly in Filipino. “And then the others, it looks like there’s no onward transmission.”

“So right now, there is no evidence of community transmission. Doesn’t mean that it’s not there, but we will continue to look,” he added.

Carlos said that there is still a need to wait for the results of the ongoing investigation into these cases of the new variant before concluding whether there is community transmission of the mutated virus.

The country’s coronavirus task force is requiring Filipinos returning from the territories covered by travel restrictions to take a second coronavirus test five days after their arrival in the country.

The Philippines has also shut its borders to foreigners coming from 34 countries which have reported new coronavirus variants until the end of the month to keep mutated viruses out.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Friday that there is “some evidence” that the new variant is more deadly, but experts with the DOH said this data is still “very preliminary” and would need further study.

Preliminary estimates find that B.1.1.7, which according to the WHO has spread to 60 countries, is between 30% and 70% more contagious than other forms of the virus. 

Experts warned that an increase in the transmission of the new variant will lead to more people getting infected and sick, which can overwhelm the country's health system anew.

COVID-19 NOVEL CORONAVIRUS
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