MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — The new and more transmissible coronavirus variant first reported in the United Kingdom has been detected in the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) said on Wednesday evening.
“Following strengthened biosurveillance and border control efforts, the Department of Health (DOH) and the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) today officially confirm the detection of the B.1.1.7. SARS-CoV-2 variant (UK variant) in the country after samples from a Filipino who arrived from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on January 7 yielded positive genome sequencing results,” the DOH said in a statement.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the 29-year-old male patient is a resident of Kamuning, Quezon City who left for Dubai for business purposes last Dec. 27 and returned to the Philippines on Jan. 7 via Emirates Flight No. EK 332.
He was immediately swabbed and quarantined in a hotel upon arrival in the country.
“The positive test result was released the following day and the patient was referred to a quarantine facility in Quezon City while his samples were sent to PGC for whole genome sequencing,” the DOH said.
Duque said the patient has pneumonia and is currently under medication.
Genome or gene sequencing is a process that allows scientists to see how a virus has mutated based on the samples from COVID-positive patients.
According to the DOH, the male patient was with his female partner during the trip but she tested negative for COVID-19. Despite this, she is now under “strict quarantine and monitoring.”
A separate press release from the QC government said the couple had negative COVID-19 test results before they left the Philippines and upon their arrival in Dubai.
The DOH said the couple did not have any exposure to COVID-19 before their trip.
“Immediate contact tracing was done in close coordination with the QC government, and the initially identified contacts are asymptomatic and currently under strict home quarantine,” it added.
It said it is working with the QC government to “ensure timely and effective measures are in place to mitigate transmission.”
The Quezon City City Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit (CESU) said it also contact-traced frontliners who brought the patient to the isolation facility and health workers there.
“As an added precautionary measure, the patient’s immediate household contacts have been brought to an isolation facility where they were also tested,” the CESU said.
It also “initiated heightened surveillance in the community of the resident” to check for clustered cases.
"We have to remain cautious and vigilant to avert the spread of this new variant. What is important is we take care of the resident, and make sure we don't sow panic in the community," Mayor Joy Belmonte said in the press release.
The health department said it already has the flight manifest and that contact tracing of the patient’s fellow passengers is underway. The agency also called on other passengers of Emirates Flight No. EK 332 to contact their respective Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams (BHERTs).
The DOH said the government will be intensifying its “weekly genomic biosurveillance among incoming passengers, local cases, re-infected patients, and those with reported clustering of cases.”
This means regular sequencing of samples from COVID positive patients to check for any new COVID-19 variants. Besides the UK variant, new variants from South Africa and other countries are being studied by experts, including how they could possibly affect vaccine efficacy.
The DOH said contact tracing efforts will be expanded to include “third-generation close contacts for known B.1.1.7 cases.” These close contacts will have to undergo strict 14-day quarantine in a facility.
The DOH advised the public to strictly observe minimum health standards and stricter implementation of quarantine protocols “to further mitigate the risk of acquiring the virus and slow down possible mutations.”
Experts have explained that having fewer cases would help prevent the further mutation of viruses.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said on Wednesday afternoon that in case the country detects the new variant, protocols will not change much since only minimum health standards would prevent the spread of the disease.
She said people should be conscious about air circulation, and to continue wearing face masks and face shields while observing physical distancing. She said there should also be less interaction among people.
The Philippines has imposed travel restrictions until Friday against foreign nationals coming from the UK, the United States, China and several other areas where the new variant has been reported.
Filipino nationals arriving from those territories are exempted, but need to undergo mandatory quarantine upon arrival.
The Philippines has logged a total of 492,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases, as of Wednesday, of which, 24,478 are active infections.