NEWS | Philippines confirms first case of new COVID-19 variant, remains doubtful over Sinovac vaccine

Photo from Luis Liwanag / Benar News

With the Philippines confirming its first case of the new COVID-19 variant, experts urged the public to be more vigilant to mitigate the risks of it spreading. Increased surveillance efforts, coupled with tightening of borders and continuous vaccine purchases, are some of the current measures being undertaken by the Philippine government. However, citizens have expressed their doubts regarding the Chinese vaccine Sinovac, the government’s preferred vaccine, due to its efficacy rate.

Confirmed case

The Department of Health (DOH) confirmed the presence of the United Kingdom COVID-19 variant last Wednesday, January 13, after the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) detected it in a Filipino who arrived from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last January 7.

The patient is reported to be a 29-year-old male resident of Quezon City who took off for business concerns last December 27 and returned on January 7. His female companion, on the other hand, tested negative but is still under strict quarantine and heavy monitoring.

According to the DOH, the couple was not exposed to the disease prior to their departure. The city government also said that the two tested negative before leaving the country as well as upon arrival in Dubai. After conducting contact tracing, the identified contacts were confirmed to be asymptomatic.

The DOH also advised those who were aboard Emirates Flight No. EK 332 to get in touch with their barangay health workers.

Moreover, the city government heightened their surveillance in the resident’s community to determine the presence of other cases. They are also reportedly waiting for the DOH to submit the list of passengers from the said flight to find out if there are any who are also their residents.

Looming dangers

The UK variant, also known as B117, is estimated to be 50% to 70% more infectious than its original variant. Although it does not appear to be more deadly, it certainly spreads quicker due to its increased viral load.

Dr. John Wong of health research institution Epimetrics Inc. expressed his concern over the possibility of the new variant to dominate the country.

With our current reproduction rate of 1.1, 20,000 cases can become almost 300,000 cases by the end of the month,” he said.

ABS-CBN data analyst Edson Guido also said in a tweet last January 9 that a more transmissible variant poses a greater threat than a more lethal one as it will bring about an exponential increase in cases, and more so, deaths.

Late to admit?

A report of the new variant amongst Filipinos initially came from Hong Kong, who detected it in a passenger who returned from the Philippines last December 22.

Although Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire said that the national government already started coordinating with the Internal Health Regulations (IHR) of Hong Kong, the DOH maintained last January 6 that there was still no confirmed case of the new variant in the country.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III admitted in an interview that he doesn’t know if the new variant has already infected Filipinos who have not been tested for COVID-19.

Ramped-up efforts

The DOH said that it will intensify its weekly biogenomic surveillance, a process which requires collection and genomic sequencing of samples from vulnerable and at risk sectors, to identify all possible variants of the virus.

In genomic sequencing, scientists analyze a test sample and compare it with other cases to determine if the patient has acquired the new variant.

Vergeire noted that they are currently monitoring other newly-discovered variants of COVID-19 such as 501Y.V2 from South Africa and A701B from Malaysia.

The Philippine government also implemented a travel ban and imposed entry restrictions on travelers coming from 33 countries, now including China. Moreover, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque earlier stated the UAE would likely be included in the list but only the President can declare it.

The inter-agency task force has also decided to extend the ban until the end of the month, January 31.

State of vaccines

Scientists assured that the vaccines are still effective against the new variant. However, public concerns are mounting over the efficacy rate of one of the Philippine government’s chosen vaccines, Sinovac.

“The Butantan Institute and the Government of Sao Paulo report that the coronavirus vaccine achieved a 50.38% overall efficacy rate in the clinical study conducted in Brazil, in addition to (an efficacy rate of) 78% for mild cases and 100% for moderate and severe cases of Covid-19. All rates are higher than the 50% level required by the WHO (World Health Organization),” the statement released by the government of São Paulo last Tuesday, January 12, said.

Recent Pulse Asia Survey also showed that 47 percent of Filipinos do not want to be inoculated due to their concern over the vaccine’s safety.

Meanwhile, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said that if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve the vaccine then the Philippines will not push through with its Sinovac deal.

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