MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — The Philippines has detected 14 cases of omicron subvariant BQ.1, which is more contagious and better at evading immunity, the Department of Health said Friday.
According to the DOH, some 13 samples were identified as local cases from the Cordilleras, Ilocos Region, Calabarzon, Central Visayas, and Metro Manila.
"What we know so far from this BQ. 1 would be that it is more transmissible and also it is highly immune-evasive compared to other subvariants of omicron," DOH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a press briefing.
“The virus will continuously mutate because it is part of their lifecycle. As long as there are hosts, which are humans, katulad natin, maraming hindi bakunado, mas nagkakaroon ng tsansa na magmutate ang virus."
These are results of the latest sequencing run conducted from Oct. 28 to Nov. 18, the agency said.
The BQ.1, which is a sublineage of omicron BA.5, is considered a variant of interest (VOI) by the European Center for Disease Control.
A VOI is coronavirus variant with genetic changes that are predicted or known to alter virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity and immune escape.
The BQ.1 is driving up COVID-19 infections in the US, UK, and parts of Europe.
The OCTA Research group sees a possible connection between the BQ.1 subvariant and the recent increase in weekly COVID positivity rate in Metro Manila from 7.4% to 9.2%.
COVID bed utilization rate in the region remains low at around one-fourth of available beds.
“May possibility na baka ito iyong binabantayan natin, iyong BQ subvariant na kumakalat sa US at kumakalat din sa Europe,” OCTA Research fellow Guido David said.
“Hindi naman tayo masyadong alarmed dito sa possible wave na ito sa ngayon,” he noted.
3,515 NEW CASES OF OMICRON SUBVARIANTS
In the same period, the Philippines detected 3,515 additional cases of highly contagious offshoots of the omicron, the DOH said.
The country found 1,737 new cases of the omicron BA.2.3.20, 12 cases of BA.2.75, 19 cases of BA.4, 525 cases of BA.5, 358 cases of XBB, and 864 cases tagged as other sublineages, latest figures from DOH showed.
"After the observed increase in number and proportion of the BA.5 sublineage of omicron since July 2022, the different omicron subvariants under monitoring flagged by the World Health Organization (ie. BA.2.3.20, XBB) are in a continuous uptrend starting September 2022," the agency said.
In addition, 1,645 were reclassified into the Delta variant and 254 were tagged as XBC.
Of the additional BA.2.3.20 cases, 1,708 were local cases from all regions except Region 8 and Caraga, while 23 were returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs). The DOH is verifying whether the remaining are local cases or not.
Meanwhile, of the 525 BA.5 cases, 520 were local cases from all regions except Region 8, and 5 were ROFs, the health department said. The figure includes the 14 BQ.1 cases.
Of the additional 358 XBB cases, 354 were local cases from Regions 1, 3, 4A, 6, 7, 11, 12, CAR, and NCR, 3 were ROFs while the remaining case is currently being verified if local or not.
Lastly, all 254 new cases classified as XBC were local cases coming from 11 regions, the DOH said.
The DOH reminded the public that protection standards against COVID remain the same regardless of variants, such as vaccination and observance of health protocols, including wearing face masks.
“With all of these subvariants that are being published or na nade-detect sa sequencing results, pareho pa rin ang protection na kailangan. It should always be our minimum public health standards. Ang pinaka-importante, magpapabakuna tayo. We get enough protection, especially against these variants,” Vergeire said.
The DOH is also studying if the new generation or bivalent COVID vaccines, which the government plans to procure, may be offered as a third booster to vulnerable sectors like senior citizens, immunocompromised individuals, and health workers.
DISEASE CONTROL CENTER
For Vergeire, it is important for government to enact a bill pending in Congress regarding the foundation of a center for disease control in the Philippines, before the country lifts its COVID-19 state of calamity,
“If the Center for Disease Control bill will be enacted all of these provisions and considerations were already included ... If this bill will not be enacted by the end of the year, that is the time that we need to consider if we will request from the Office of the President, another extension, even just for 1 or 2 months because we still need to continue on with the response for COVID-19,” she said.
The DOH official also clarified that the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine will not be abolished should a proposed bill creating the country's Center for Disease Control is signed into law.
Vergeire said the RITM will be absorbed into CDC’s center for reference laboratories and center for health evidence. The health research facility will be further strengthened due to having more funds, more support, and more experts, she added
DONATION FROM JAPAN
Vergeire, meanwhile, led the turnover of medical and cold chain equipment donated by the Japanese government to the Philippines, in support of its COVID-19 vaccination and pandemic response.
The DOH said the Philippines has received from Japan a total of P3 billion worth of support in the form of donations and official development assistance projects. The donations include medical equipment such as portable X-ray machines, MRI machines, and CT scanners. Japan also provided refrigerated vans, wing vans and ambulances.
"All of these will be distributed to those areas that will be needing it the most," Vergeire said.