MANILA — The Philippines on Saturday confirmed a new COVID-19 variant first detected in the Philippines, calling it P.3, with a total of 98 cases so far detected.
The DOH also confirmed the detection of the more transmissible Brazil variant, the P.1, in a Filipino who had returned to the Philippines from Brazil.
The P.3 and P.1 variants belong to the same B.1.1.28 lineage.
The P.3 pertains to a variant containing “mutations of concern” previously detected in the Philippines. It is not yet proven, however, that the variant is more transmissible or may cause problems with vaccine efficacy.
The announcement on the P.3 variant was made almost a month after the DOH confirmed that “two mutations of possible clinical significance” — E484K and N501Y — were detected from samples in Central Visayas.
The DOH said Saturday the initial detection of P.3 was made in 85 cases. A total of 13 more were later detected.
"Upon verification with the Phylogenetic Assignment of Named Global Outbreak Lineages (PANGOLIN), the said samples with these mutations have been reassigned to the P.3 variant, belonging to the B.1.1.28 lineage, to which the P.1 variant also belongs," the DOH said in a statement.
It said the new variant is "not identified as a variant of concern as current available data are insufficient to conclude whether the variant will have significant public health implications."
The DOH also confirmed that the case of a new variant detected in Japan is carrying the P.3.
Despite the P.3 being first detected in the Philippines, the DOH told media that the World Health Organization “discourages the use of places to identify variants,” thus advised against calling it the Philippine variant.
“The so-called UK and South African variants were tagged so because these variants were first reported in these countries. The P.3 variant, in the same way, shall be more accurately described NOT as a Philippine variant but a variant first reported in the Philippines,” the DOH said.
Before the government announcement, DOH technical advisory group member Dr. Edsel Salvana posted on Facebook that the so-called "Philippine variant" being observed in Cebu was already named P.3. The post was later edited to remove the name "Philippine variant."
FIRST CASE OF THE VARIANT FROM BRAZIL
The first case of the Brazil variant was, meanwhile, found in a Filipino who had returned from the Latin American country. The DOH said "additional information about the case is currently being investigated."
This variant was first detected in Japan among 4 travelers from Brazil, the DOH said.
"According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is evidence to suggest that transmissibility and the ability of antibodies generated through previous infection is affected by some mutations of this variant," it said.
It said, however, that correct and consistent compliance with minimum health standards "will prevent the transmission of these variants."
"Further, the DOH strongly urges all local government units (LGUs) to facilitate and implement necessary interventions to mitigate the continued increase in the number of cases," it said.
MORE CASES OF DIFFERENT VARIANTS
The DOH also detected new cases of other COVID-19 variants following its 10th batch of sampling positive cases, with a total 752 samples sequenced, majority from Metro Manila, Calabarzon and the Cordillera region.
VARIANT FROM THE UK
The Department reported 59 additional cases of the variant identified as B.1.1.7. Majority or 30 of them are local cases, 18 are returning overseas Filipinos, and 11 are still being verified.
This brings the total number of UK variant cases in the Philippines to 177.
The DOH said 16 of these cases are from the Cordillera Administrative Region, 10 are from the National Capital Region, 2 are from Central Luzon, and 2 are from CALABARZON.
Like the Brazil variant, the UK variant is also said to be more transmissible.
VARIANT FROM SOUTH AFRICA
There are also 32 additional cases of the variant identified as B.1.351. Majority are also local cases and one is a returning overseas Filipino. The remaining 10 have pending locations.
There are now a total of 90 cases of this variant in the Philippines. A total of 19 are from the National Capital Region, 1 is from Cagayan Valley, and 1 is from Northern Mindanao.
The variant is also said to be more contagious and also has the mutation that allows the virus to evade a person’s immune system, raising issues on vaccine effectivity.
VIRUS MUTATIONS & LINEAGES
A paper authored by Filipino researchers, including government experts, published on the medRxiv website March 6 discussed the P.3, which was still unnamed then, as an “emergent variant (in Central Visayas) characterized by 13-lineage-defining mutations." The mutations include the N501Y, the E484K, and the P681H. The P681H is found in the spike protein of the UK variant.
The paper noted that the samples bearing the emergent variant “were collected mainly at a time and location that was experiencing a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases, raising the possibility of a more transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variant as a potential cause.” The samples where the variant was found were from the cities of Cebu, Mandaue, and Lapu-Lapu, and in Cebu province, which all detected increasing numbers of cases over recent weeks.
E484K and N501Y are both found in “variants of concern” such as those in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil.
Dr. Eva Dela Paz, executive director of the National Institutes of Health of the University of the Philippines, earlier explained that N501Y is a mutation in the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2.
In a simplified manner, Dela Paz said that the mutation changed the shape of the protein to make it easier for the virus to attach itself to a human being’s cells.
Meanwhile, E484K is called an “escape mutation” since it allows the virus to escape the body’s immune system. Because of these, some researchers fear that variants with the E484K mutation may make vaccines less effective, although scientists have said that vaccines should still offer some protection regardless of the variant, especially against severe cases of COVID-19.
Variants are subtypes of a virus that are distinct but not that different from the original virus to be considered a new strain.
Dela Paz said that lineages are like families or clans of a virus. Identifying lineages help in epidemiological surveillance or in the study of how a virus spreads.
The Brazil lineage of B.1.1.28, which has long been detected in the Philippines, has been described as “common” or not having any remarkable characteristics that make it more transmissible, like the so-called “variants of concern.” In a sense, Dela Paz said then, the P.1 is considered a grandchild of the B.1.1.28.
The Philippines recorded its highest daily count of COVID-19 cases so far this year on Friday, with a total 4,578 new infections, also the highest in 6 months.
It now has a total of 611,618 cases.
- With a report from Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News.