MANILA (UPDATE 2) — At least two cases of India's COVID-19 variant have been detected in the Philippines, the health department said Tuesday, a day after the World Health Organization classified it as a variant of concern at the global level.
Both cases infected with the B.1.617 variant are male OFWs: one patient is a 37-year-old who came from Oman, while the other is a 38-year-old who arrived from the UAE, said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
"Yung ating dalawang kaso have been filed as recovered. They are currently asymptomatic," said Epidemiology Bureau Director Althea de Guzman.
(These two cases have already recovered. They are currently asymptomatic.)
The first patient arrived on April 10 and recovered from COVID-19 on April 26. The other case arrived on April 19 and recovered on May 6, according to data from the Department of Health.
Both carriers of the disease had no travel history to India, De Guzman said.
One of the 2 cases is now in Soccksargen, while the other is in Bicol, she said.
"'Yung mga passengers na kasama nila sa row ay nag-test negative na po," she added.
(The passengers who were on the same row with them during the flight have tested negative.)
"Inaalam din natin kung sila ay naka-kumpleto na ng quarantine," De Guzman said of the fellow passengers.
(We are still confirming if they have completed their quarantine.)
The DOH has yet to confirm if any of the 5 other inbound travelers who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month are also carriers of COVID-19 variants detected in other countries.
Authorities have yet to say as well if travel and health protocols need to be adjusted after the entry of the B.1.617 variant, which has reportedly infected over a million in India.
"'Yung duration of infectiousness, there is no evidence that it lasts longer than the other variants," Edsel Salvana, a member of the Department of Health's Technical Advisory Group, said of the B.1.617 variant.
(There is no evidence that its duration of infectiousness lasts longer than other variants.)
But Salvana noted that there might be a need to heighten border controls as most of the new variants usually come from overseas.
"This underlines the fact that we have to further protect our borders," he said.
"It is very important that we have an idea on how fast these are coming and which countries ang kailangan natin mag-ingat (we have to be wary of)."
The WHO said the B.1.617 variant of COVID-19 first found in India last October seemed to be transmitting more easily.
"There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility of the B.1.617," Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's lead on COVID-19, told reporters on Monday.
Philippine authorities earlier imposed a travel ban to those coming from India until May 14, in a bid to prevent the variant's entry.
The variant has been tagged as responsible for India's COVID-19 surge, stretching the country's healthcare system to the breaking point.
Travel restrictions, meanwhile, were also imposed to passengers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka - which all ring India.
The India variant was cited as “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 as "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 Californian study to be an efficient spreader.
Filipinos need to continuously observe health protocols such as the wearing of face masks and face shields in public places and frequent hand washing to curb the spread of the virus, Vergeire said.
"Ang virus po, hindi siya magmu-mutate kung mababa po ang mga kaso. So kailangan tuloy-tuloy po tayo," she said.
(The virus will not mutate if there is a low number of cases. So we have to be consistent in observing health protocols.)
As of Tuesday, 34 percent of the 5,952 samples sequenced were found to be carrying COVID-19 variants of concern, according to data from the DOH.
The following COVID-19 variants have earlier 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 UK variant is present in 12 regions, while the South African variant has been detected in 15 regions, the DOH said.
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, relevant agencies said.
- With a report from Agence France-Presse