A year after the country entered one of the world's longest COVID-19 lockdowns, the Philippines is once again contemplating more stringent quarantine measures as it enters what one member of the University of the Philippines (UP) Pandemic Response Team described as the “second wave” of infections.
In an interview on radio dzBB, a consultant of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF), Dr. Ted Herbosa, said the government may once again impose a modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) once hospitals become fully occupied.
“Usually, we will go back to MECQ when hospitals and temporary treatment facilities are already fully occupied,” he said. “When hospitals are full, more people may die because they cannot treat them. They are waiting in line for admission.”
On Saturday, the Quezon City General Hospital said that since March 9, the occupancy rate of the hospital's COVID-19 ward beds had exceeded 100 percent.
An independent research group that has been monitoring the pandemic said on Sunday that the Philippines might record up to 8,000 daily new COVID-19 cases by the end of the month, and 18,000 to 20,000 by mid-April if the current reproduction rate does not change.
The OCTA Research Team said in Metro Manila, daily virus cases could reach 5,000 to 6,000 by the end of March and 14,000 by mid-April.
OCTA Research fellow Guido David said the projection is based on a 1.9 reproduction rate, which estimates the number of people who will be infected by a virus patient.
“We're not trying to scare people. We're just telling them that's what the science says. There's no fear-mongering in science. Our projections had come true. In fact, the virus spread is faster than our original projection, so we readjusted it,” David told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo.
A member of the University of the Philippines (UP) Pandemic Response Team said the recent spike could be considered a second wave of the pandemic.
The country on Saturday reported 5,000 fresh cases, the highest in nearly seven months, raising the country’s total number of infections to 616,611.
“This could be considered a second wave because in terms of peak, the number of cases is really increasing. I hope this second wave's peak is not higher than the first, unlike in other countries,” Jomar Rabajante said in an interview on ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo.
“We have projections. The number of new daily cases can decrease to 2,000, or it can reach as high as 7,000, 7,500 in a day,” he said.
Quezon City and Manila City lead the areas with the highest increase in COVID-19 cases, Rabajante said.
The rise in cases may be due to increased mobility in densely populated places and the possibility of more transmissible coronavirus variants, including a new one first detected in the Philippines, he added.
“I don't want to say we should go on lockdown. Many have COVID-19 fatigue already. We need a new strategy. We need to promote, in terms of education, that there's still [a threat from] COVID-19,” he said.
The Philippines logged 4,899 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, bringing the country’s total to 621,498.
Sixty three more deaths were reported from the illness, bringing COVID-19’s death toll in the Philippines to 12,829.
The Department of Health (DOH) also reported 13,371 new recoveries, pushing the total number of Filipinos who recovered from the disease to 560,512.
This means that the country has 48,157 active cases.
The new coronavirus variant first detected in the Philippines could have developed locally and may be more transmissible but does not suggest it has increased pathogenicity, the Philippine Genome Center said.
The DOH on Saturday confirmed the P.3 variant, with a total of 98 cases so far detected.
“In my opinion, we can say it’s really a local variant.... We have not seen that in the 600,000 deposits in the database. So, we believe that it developed locally," PGC executive director Cynthia Saloma told ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo.
“What's good among the variants of concern that we have seen is that they don't suggest increased pathogenicity... It means, they don't cause severe symptoms, they don't cause death if the patient is not immunocompromised,” she said.
“When you talk about pathogenicity, the symptoms become severe. We don't see that, even in the three variants of concern - P.1, B.1.1.7, and B.1.351. They are not associated with severe symptoms,” she said.
The Philippines had sequenced 33 samples from Central Visayas on Feb. 4 and found mutations of concern E484K, N501Y, and P681H, Saloma said.
"We thought it merited a new lineage. We requested the Department of Health to allow the Philippine Genome Center to have it deposited in the global initiative on influenza data," she said of the P.3 variant.
“We saw Germany deposited a sample on the database. We don't know if it came from our islands but we saw 1 out of 34 samples was a deposit from Germany. They collected it Feb. 11,” she said.
Saloma said it is not true that Japan was the first to announce the existence of the P.3 variant, saying that the Philippines' successful biosurveillance efforts resulted in the assignment of such lineage on March 10.
The “mutations of concern” E484K and N501Y were previously detected in Central Visayas and are also present in other COVID-19 variants, Saloma said.
The N501Y was detected in the B.1.1.7 variant or the variant first detected in the UK, which is attributed to increased transmissibility, Saloma said.
The E484K, meantime, has also been detected in the B.1.351 variant first detected in South Africa and the 3.1 variant first reported in Brazil, Saloma said.
The Philippines, which launched its vaccination program against COVID-19 nearly three weeks ago, has detected all three recently reported variants of COVID-19.
Some analysts say these variants partly caused the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the country.
“The mutation suggests it is more transmissible,” she said.
“We're still studying this, so the epidemiology bureau needs to get data on the ground,” she added when asked to compare its transmissibility with other variants, underscoring the need to conduct better contact-tracing.