MANILA — Medical experts on Saturday did not recommend to President Rodrigo Duterte another set of lockdowns and travel restrictions in the Philippines should the reportedly more contagious COVID-19 variant enter the country.
Dr. Marissa Alejandria, member of the country’s COVID-19 technical advisory group, said while the mutated COVID-19 variant was easily transmittable, the mode of transmission would still be the same.
“We would like to clarify that the mode of transmission will be the same — respiratory droplets. This virus we expect the mutations. To impose the lockdown or travel restrictions will not be sustainable in the long run,” Alejandria said during Duterte’s press briefing focusing on the COVID-19 variant.
She added that the mutated form of the virus is not “more virulent” or something that could cause severe symptoms, citing research.
“This virus, ’yung variant, there is no evidence this time or this data that shows it causes the more severe form or mas virulent. Mas mabilis lang ang transmission pero hindi siya nagko-cause ng mas severe disease that will cause the critical form of disease or more hospitalizations. Sa ngayon hindi pa ’yun nakikita pero mas mabilis lang ang transmission,” she said.
(The transmission is just faster, but it does not cause a more severe disease that will cause critical illness, hospitalizations.)
The recommendations by Alejandria and the medical practitioners present during the televised briefing ran counter to the government task force’s suggestions, which lobbied for harsher measures, including, should the situation warrant, a lockdown.
Dr. Edsel Salvana, an infectious disease expert at the Philippine General Hospital, meanwhile, said that this was not the first time the country would encounter a new COVID-19 variant.
Compared with the previous months when the Philippines was handling the outbreak, Salvana said the government was more equipped to handle coronavirus patients now.
“One thing that has to be clear, this is not the first time that we are seeing a variant coming to the country. If we remember in June when we had a surge of cases, yung D614G. It is 3 to 9 times more infectious than the original virus,” Salvana said, noting that after a few weeks of the discovery, most places in the country eased lockdown restrictions.
The “advanced information” on the new variant would help the government respond to it better, he pointed out.
“Sa ngayon may advance information tayo so we are already prepared so that we can preempt any kind of spike without resulting [in] drastic measures like lockdown,” he added.
Dr. Socorro Escalante, the country’s OIC representative to the World Health Organization, cautioned against a new set of lockdown restrictions, saying that ensuring public health interventions could help.
“The WHO recommendation for now is not to restrict travel but to ensure that our public health interventions are in place and that the country is ready to mitigate any event that the transmissibility of this new strain will come in the country,” Escalante explained.
“In the past 9 months, the government has already put all the necessary public health intervention and measures but we have already learned a lot of lessons.”
A research from the United Kingdom said that the variant has an increased transmission rate of 50 percent to 70 percent compared to other variants in the country.
Experts also said that while most mutations that have arisen in the coronavirus were either harmful to the virus or have no effect one way or another, a number of the mutations in the B.1.1.7 looked as if they could potentially affect how the virus spread.
Active surveillance, more quarantine areas
Members of Duterte’s pandemic response said the government should take proactive and aggressive measures to prevent the strain from entering the Philippines.
The Department of Health (DOH), in a statement, said travel restrictions should be imposed on countries with confirmed local transmission of the new variant.
A local transmission indicates that the source of infection is within the reported area, and did not come outside of the said area, according to the WHO.
“The DOH further proposed, based on the recommendation of its experts, to consider travel restrictions in countries that have recorded cases of the COVID-19 new variant when local community transmission has been confirmed in said countries,” the agency clarified minutes after the President’s briefing.
Inoculation Czar Sec. Carlito Galvez, on the other hand, said the Department of Foreign Affairs should implement proactive measures limiting if not outright bannin travelers, most especially in the Europe area where some countries already reported the coronavirus variant.
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He added that local government units should actively monitor Filipinos who entered the country.
“We should have discreet investigation using ang ating… PNP na baka may balikbayan na galing UK na nandoon ang mga areas. We need to have active surveillance lalo na yung mga nakarating na po dito,” Galvez explained.
He also pointed out that there should be isolation facilities dedicated to patients infected with the new COVID-19 strain.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, meanwhile, said the country’s borders should be closed.
“Now, there’s no necessity for a lockdown but maybe more on the controlling of the flow from the international. If ever, probably, we may not have to declare a lockdown in the country but we have to close the border if there's a situation that would occur later on,” Año said.
He pointed out that it would be best if international ports would be limited, so the government could zero in on those ports for monitoring.
“We should watch out for international borders. Because the variant, the new strain is coming from those identified countries. Kung papapuntahin natin yung international ports, ma-embudo natin sila sa one or two international ports lang,” he said.
Duterte earlier said the Sulu province has sought for the government’s help to help the province monitor the strain after Sabah reportedly detected it.
But the country’s OIC representative to the World Health Organization clarified during the briefing that the strain found in Sabah wasn’t the mutated form from the United Kingdom.