Health workers have detected at least two local cases of the COVID-19 variant (B.1.617) that has overwhelmed India’s health system, and that the World Health Organization has classified as “a variant of concern.”
“We wish to inform the public that we identified two cases with the [Indian] variant),” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a briefing Tuesday.
Both cases were returning overseas Filipino workers: a 37-year-old male who came from Oman, and a 38-year-old male who arrived from the United Arab Emirates, Vergeire said.
There were no close contacts listed, said Epidemiology Bureau Director Althea de Guzman, and the two were immediately placed under quarantine.
Authorities earlier imposed a travel ban on people arriving from India until May 14, in a bid to prevent the variant's entry.
The variant has been blamed for India's COVID-19 surge that has stretched its health care system to the breaking point.
Travel restrictions, meanwhile, were also imposed on passengers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka-which all ring India.
The India variant is identified as a “double mutant” because of the presence of two notable mutations in the spike protein of the virus,which are said to allow the virus to easily gain entry into the human body and multiply faster.
B.1.617 has several mutations, including the E484Q and L452R.
The first notable mutation, E484Q, which is similar to E484K (called "Eek") has been dubbed an "escape mutation" as it helps the virus get past the body's immune system.
The other notable mutation, L452R, was found by a US study to be an efficient spreader.
So far, the following COVID-19 variants have been detected in the country: B.1.1.7 (first detected in the UK), B.1.351 (first detected in South Africa), and P.3 (first detected in the Philippines).
The P.3 variant is not yet identified as a variant of concern since current data is insufficient to determine whether it will have significant public health implications.
In an online briefing, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government is exerting all efforts to contain the spread of the Indian variant.
“We are being very careful,” he said in Filipino. “We are doing everything to stop the entry of this variant.”
He added that the country has not yet reported community transmission of the Indian variant.
Returning Filipinos from India and the Indian subcontinent where travel restrictions are currently implemented need to follow strict health and quarantine protocols, Roque said.
“For those who want to return home from India, just tell the embassy and necessary measures are being undertaken for your repatriation. But you must understand that you will be subjected to very strict quarantine requirements,” he said.
All travelers who wish to enter the Philippines, including those who have already been inoculated against COVID-19, are required to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine, based on Resolution 114 issued by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) on May 6.
All arriving travelers must stay in a quarantine facility for 10 days and observe home quarantine in the last four days, the IATF said.
The Department of Health (DOH) on Tuesday logged more cases of the coronavirus variants first discovered in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7) and South Africa (B.1.351).
De Guzman said 46 samples were subjected to genome sequencing on May 8 to detect more variant cases.
The latest run yielded 23 new B.1.351 cases, four more B.1.1.7 cases, and two cases of the B.1.617.
De Guzman said the B.1.1.7 variant has already been detected in 12 regions, with 358 cases in pandemic epicenter Metro Manila and 145 cases in Calabarzon.
The B.1.351 variant has also been detected in 15 regions, with Metro Manila having 602 cases and Calabarzon having 121 cases.
De Guzman said areas with a spike or clustering of COVID-19 cases are prioritized for genome sequencing.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Edsel Salvana said incoming international travelers are usually the ones found to be carrying coronavirus variants.
“When we see more variants being transmitted in the community it means some are slipping through our protocols and that’s why we have to tighten up,” he said.
The Philippines reported 4,734 additional COVID-19 infections on Tuesday bringing the total number of infections to 1,113,547.
The new infections reported was the lowest since March 18.
Twelve laboratories failed to submit their results on time.
Vergeire on Saturday said the lower number of cases being reported in recent weeks could be attributed to the lower number of samples being received by testing laboratories.
A total of 59 new fatalities were reported, bringing the death toll to 18,620.
The DOH also announced that 7,837 more patients have recovered from the illness, bringing the total recoveries to 1,038,175.
There were 56,752 active cases, of which 93.4 percent were mild, 2.2 percent of which were asymptomatic, 1.8 percent of which were severe, 1.4 percent of which were critical, and 1.17 percent of which were moderate.
Data also showed that 60 percent of the country’s intensive care unit beds were in use while 41 percent of the mechanical ventilators were occupied.
In the National Capital Region, 67 percent of the ICU beds were being used, while 49 percent of the mechanical ventilators were in use.
The OCTA Research group that has been tracking the pandemic said new daily cases in Metro Manila could drop to about 1,000 if the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) is extended until the end of May.
Dr. Guido David said the current reproduction number was at 0.65 with an average of fewer than 2,000 cases per day.
Also on Tuesday, party-list Rep. Ronnie Ong urged the government to step up its information drive on COVID-19 which has now mutated into more contagious and deadly variants.
Ong said many Filipinos are still not taking the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously because most of them are still clueless of the pain and the anguish that patients experience aside from the massive cost of treatment.