The government is monitoring the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 that already has cases in South Africa, acting presidential spokesperson and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said Friday.
During a Palace briefing, Nograles said members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) and the Department of Health (DOH) are largely aware of the variant described by experts as “heavily mutated.”
"We are monitoring—intently monitoring—this situation. We continue to conduct our genomic surveillance on the ground," Nograles said in an interview.
He added the government is constantly exchanging information with the World Health Organization about the possible threat of the newly detected variant.
"We are awaiting their advisories if this variant is considered a variant of interest or a variant of concern," Nograles said.
Dana Krizia Sandoval, spokesperson of the Bureau of Immigration, said in another interview that various systems are in place once the IATF sees the need to adjust the travel restrictions caused by emerging COVID-19 variants (see sidebar – Editors).
Earlier Friday, the independent OCTA Research Group called for an escalation of restrictions on South Africa and Botswana amid the detection of a new coronavirus variant that is believed to be more transmissible.
South Africa is currently included in the Philippines' "green list" or nations and jurisdictions considered "low risk" based on the COVID-19 incidence rate and case count.
Botswana is under the "yellow list.” Travelers from these areas may be allowed to enter the Philippines, subject to applicable quarantine and testing protocols.
In Europe, governments across the continent rushed to bolster their defenses against a fresh coronavirus spike, as South Africa announced it had detected a new COVID-19 strain that scientists fear could torpedo efforts to beat the pandemic. (See story on B2 – Editors)
OCTA fellow Guido David said the new B.1.1.529 variant may be a potential cause for concern.
The B.1.1.529 was found to have at least 10 mutations, compared to two for Delta and three for Beta, and is being blamed for a surge of infections in South Africa.
“At this stage, all we can say is this could definitely be a potential for serious concern. The concern is this virus is now radically different to the original,” David said.
“We will monitor this in terms of infectiousness and vaccine escape,” he added.
The United Kingdom has said that it will ban travel from six southern African countries due to an early indication that the new variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant.
The DOH said it is waiting for a statement from the WHO regarding the South African variant.
DOH director Dr. Beverly Ho said WHO is set to meet within the day and may come up with a statement on Saturday.
“The World Health Organization called a meeting today. They just released their advisory and we may find out later in the day or tomorrow what the decision will be on this,” Ho said.
Wire reports said daily infections in South Africa jumped to more than 1,200 on Wednesday from 100 earlier this month.
Experts abroad have expressed concern that the variant may make vaccines less effective due to its spike protein, which is different from the original coronavirus that vaccines are based on.
Dr. Edsel Salvana, an infectious disease expert and a member of the DOH-Technical Advisory Group, said the higher number of mutations does not necessarily mean that the variant has higher transmissibility or resistance to vaccines.
“While the presence of certain mutations is concerning, it does not mean that it has a higher transmissibility or the efficacy of vaccines will be lower,” Salvana said in Filipino during an online briefing.
Salvana also assured the public that anti-COVID-19 measures remain in place all over the world.
“And the fact that this was detected and is already being talked about by WHO, it shows that our global genomic surveillance is working,” he said.
He also said that compliance with minimum health protocols remains effective against the virus and that vaccines can still give protection against severe COVID-19.
A surge in cases in Europe, he added, could be due to the cold weather driving people indoors where ventilation is poor.
It could also be due to people being “somewhat careless” about wearing face masks as vaccination rates went up, he said.
Salvana said a lower alert level here was all right as long as transmission here remained low, even though a new variant had been spotted in Hong Kong. Alert levels, he said, were based on the ongoing community transmission.
Presidential adviser for entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion, meanwhile, said preventing a surge of COVID-19 cases is key to keeping the economy open.
“If we want to keep the economy open, we need to take action and vaccinate all our employees and family members and comply with health protocol and guidelines. The private sector has been proactive ever since with calling of the lockdown and securing vaccines. Now we are working together to discuss how to sustain this momentum and prevent a surge again,” Concepcion said.