If COVID-19 variants become dominant, new infections may increase 28 times, DOH warns

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 17 2021 07:19 PM | Updated as of Mar 17 2021 07:42 PM

Video courtesy of Department of Health

MANILA — The Department of Health on Wednesday warned that if the Philippines is unable to control the spread of COVID-19 variants, the country may experience a 28-fold increase in new cases.

“Ayaw nating umabot sa punto na lahat na ng samples na nasi-sequence natin ay magiging variants of concern na. 'Pag ganun po, itong nakikita nating pagtaas hindi lang 3x, 4x. Pwedeng up to 28 times yung increase na makita natin," Dr. Alethea de Guzman, OIC Director III of the DOH Epidemiology Bureau, said during a virtual briefing. 

(We don’t want it to reach the point that all of our samples are variants of concern. If that’s the case, the increase we will see won’t be 3x, 4x, but up to 28 times increase.)

"And that will truly overwhelm our health system,” she added.

A variant is considered a variant of concern if through assessment, it is demonstrated to be “associated with increased transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology,” among other things, according to the World Health Organization. 

Currently, there are 3 variants of concern in the Philippines: the B.1.1.7 first detected in the United Kingdom, the B.1.351 detected in South Africa, and the P.1 detected in Brazil. All are considered more transmissible, with the latter two said to contain an escape mutation that makes the virus better at evading a body’s immune response.

The UK variant has 41 local cases in the Cordillera Administrative Region, 39 in the National Capital Region, 4 in Calabarzon, 2 in Central Luzon, and 1 in Northern Mindanao.

Local cases refer to patients who have not traveled outside of the country.

For the South African variant, there are 64 cases in NCR, and 1 each in Cagayan Valley and Northern Mindanao.

Among the 17 NCR cities, 13 have the UK variant, while 8 have the South African variant.

“Meron po tayong 74 or 27% ng lahat ng kaso ng variant of concern na returning overseas Filipino, at merong isang foreign national,” De Guzman said.

(We have 74 cases or 24% of all those with variants of concern involving returning overseas Filipino, and there is a foreign national.)

The health official said this is important to note because there is really a possibility for a new variant to enter the country.

Because the Philippines does not have any plans to close its borders again, the DOH said it wants to minimize the risk as much as possible.

“Napakahalaga yung patuloy na pagbabantay ng ating borders,” De Guzman said.

(It’s important to continuously guard our borders.)

De Guzman said only 6.6% of the COVID-positive samples sequenced by the Philippine Genome Center had variants of concern.

“Napakahalaga na ngayong maliit na porsyento pa lamang ng ating sini-sequence ang nagpopositibo sa mga variants of concern. Ibig sabihin, we really have the opportunity now na matigil na 'to, na 'wag nang lalo pang lumaki ang dami at porsyento ng mga nagiging positibo para sa variants of concern,” she said.

(It’s important that those positive cases sequenced with variants of concern are only a small percentage. This means, we really have the opportunity now that this can stop, and for those testing positive for the variants of concern to no longer increase.)

A graph shared by De Guzman to media showed that cities with one variant of concern had higher incidence rates of COVID-19 than those without. Cities with two variants of concern had much higher incidence rates.

But De Guzman said the graph also shows that cases are really increasing, even in areas without the variants of concern.

“Oo, nakaka-contribute talaga itong mga variants of concern doon sa mabilis na pagtaas ng kaso natin because that’s the inherent characteristics of the variant,” she said.

(Yes, the variants of concern really contribute to the quick rise in cases because that’s the inherent characteristics of the variant.)

“Kahit wala tayong nakikita pang variant of concern sa maraming lugar sa Pilipinas, talagang merong pagtaas ng kaso dito sa iba’t ibang rehiyon, iba’t ibang probinsya, syudad at munisipyo natin. Ibig sabihin, hindi lang variants of concern ang dahilan ng pagtaas. Marami pang factors,” she added.

(Even if we are not seeing variants of concern in many areas in the Philippines, there is still an increase in cases in different regions, provinces, cities and municipalities. This means that the variants of concern is not the only reason for the increase. There are many other factors.)

De Guzman said the other reasons include the non-compliance with health protocols and the increased mobility of people.

The health official said the increase in COVID cases being seen in the country is already comparable to the peak of infections in July.

She cited data showing that more Filipinos are going out of their houses starting December.

For the last 6 days, new COVID-19 cases in the country have been at least 4,000, bringing the total number of cases to 635,698 on Wednesday.

Besides the 3 variants of concern, the WHO is also looking at the P.3 variant, which was first detected in the Philippines. It includes mutations that have been seen in other more transmissible variants but assessment is pending on whether it will be considered a variant of concern.