The government on Tuesday said it will try to swiftly contain the spread of the more transmissible COVID-19 variant from South Africa (B.1.351), which is said to affect vaccine efficacy, after six cases have been confirmed in the Philippines.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said both the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7, and the South African variant were more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain, but the latter was of particular concern because it had a mutation that affects vaccine efficacy.
She said this was called an “immune escape” that prevents the body’s immune system from responding to the infection.
“This is why we want, as much as possible, fast containment of this variant so we can prevent further spread,” she said, speaking in Filipino.
She added that the Department of Health (DOH) was still validating if there was local transmission of the South African variant in Pasay City.
The DOH earlier reported the detection of six cases of the South African variant and 30 more cases of the UK variant and two additional cases “with mutations of interest.”
The DOH said 48 countries have already reported cases of the B.1351 variant.
While there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe disease, the pattern of mutations within this variant suggests higher transmissibility and may have an impact on vaccine efficacy, the DOH said.
Of the six South African variant cases, three are local cases, two are returning overseas Filipino workers, and one is still being verified.
The three local cases were reported as residents of Pasay City whose samples were collected between Jan. 27 and Feb. 13, 2021.
Two of the local cases, a 61-year-old female and a 39-year-old male, are active cases being managed by Pasay City. The third local case, a 40-year-old male, has already recovered.
On the other hand, the two returning workers arrived in the country from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar; their statuses are currently being verified.
Vergeire said the DOH is analyzing the link between the more transmissible South African variant and the spike in COVID-19 cases in Pasay City.
“The probability is always there because there are variants detected and the cases are rising, but we need to do a thorough analysis for us to be able to really confirm and say that the variants are the cause of this increase in cases,” she said in a briefing.
Vergeire said that while the variants are more transmissible, other factors such as poor compliance to health protocols and inter-zonal mobility also cause the spread of COVID-19.
Last week, the DOH said more samples for genome sequencing would be collected in Pasay after it saw an uptick in COVID-19 infections.
A former government consultant on the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Leachon, decried the government’s lack of urgency in dealing with the South African variant.
“We did not impose travel ban for travelers from South Africa. This explains the sudden surge,” Leachon said.
The former medical adviser of the National Task Force COVID-19 also pointed to a report that said AstraZeneca’s Vaccine, which is the brand most local governments in the Philippines have ordered, did not work well against the virus variant from South Africa.
The addition of 30 cases of the UK variant brought the total B.1.1.7 infections to 87.
Of the 30 additional cases with B.1.1.7, 20 are returning workers who entered the country from the Middle East, Singapore and the United States; three are local cases; and seven are still being verified.
The Philippines logged 2,067 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total to 580,442, as eight laboratories were not able to submit their data.
This is the sixth straight day where more than 2,000 new infection were reported.
The DOH reported 47 new fatalities, bringing the death toll to 12,369, which is 2.13 percent of the total.
The DOH also reported 144 newly-recovered patients, bringing the total recoveries to 534,463, which is 92.1 percent of the total.
This left 33,610 active cases, which is 5.8 percent of the total number of cases. Of the active cases, 89.8 percent are mild; 4.8 percent are asymptomatic; 2.3 percent are critical; 2.2 percent are severe; and 0.85 percent are moderate.