MANILA - The new strain of the coronavirus in the country detected by the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) may not be “more deadly” than the original one, but it may still cause more severely ill patients and more deaths, according to a former top health official.
The PGC earlier said that aside from the original D614 genotype, they detected the new G614 strain from samples of positive COVID-19 patients in Quezon City.
Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral, who led the country's health department from 2009 to 2010, explained that even as the G614 strain is not generally expected to cause more severe symptoms, vulnerable sectors of the population will nevertheless have higher chances of contracting COVID-19 since it is believed to be “more infectious”.
“At the moment the new strain, the new mutation that they said entered the country, is thought to be more infectious but of the same virulence or even less of avirulence than the current strain that is predominant in the Philippines," she said in a virtual forum on sponsored by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) on Friday.
“So we can be infected more with the virus because it is easily transmissible… more people are going to be infected, then in absolute numbers, we can have more severe cases and more deaths. When it comes to the absolute numbers, we can have more cases of severely ill people and dead people even if the virus is not as virulent or only as virulent, if the infectiousness increases.
“It can increase by virtue of the increased infectiousness, not by virtue of its virulence,” she said.
LOCKDOWN NOT LONG-TERM SOLUTION
Cabral explained observing prescribed health standards such as wearing of masks, maintaining physical distancing, and proper handwashing are the solution to stemming the further spread of the virus, and not the implementation of general lockdowns.
If at all lockdowns have to be imposed, she suggests localized ones that are limited to clustered cases.
“I think there are more ways than just keeping people under lockdown to control the community transmission of coronavirus. If we can only practice physical distancing, putting on our facemasks, washing our hands, etc. properly, we do not need to lock people down," she said.
“And if we need to lock people down, we do not need to lock whole cities and whole regions down. I think that it is good to consider clusters and locking down that particular area only instead of the whole city or the whole region, but making sure that the other good health practices are complied with.”
University of the Philippines Applied Mathematics professor Guido David agrees.
“Lockdowns are not a long-term solution. We only apply it as an emergency measure, because lockdowns are not sustainable in the long run. It might be sustainable with a country with more economic capability," he said.
"In the Philippines, a 3rd world country, a lockdown is economically devastating.”
David is among those who suggested a further extension of the recently lifted modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) in the National Capital Region (NCR) to another 2 weeks, so as to further slow down community transmission.
Government has now placed the metro under the more relaxed general community quarantine (GCQ) category to restore economic activity.
QUICKER RELEASE OF COVID-19 TEST RESULTS PLUS ISOLATION/QUARANTINE
Cabral and David stressed the need for a faster turnaround of COVID-19 test results, as they noted not all those awaiting results isolate themselves or go on voluntary quarantine.
These are the people who may be shedding the virus to loved ones, colleagues and friends, they explained.
“When we test people… and then we let them go home and wait for results for three days or one week and they are not quarantined yet, they could potentially be superspreaders because we didn’t quarantine them. The idea is they should be quarantined or self-isolated while waiting for the test results," David said.
“Pre-symptomatics are among the most highly infectious individuals… before they display symptoms and they are not yet isolated that is definitely a big factor in this fight against the pandemic."
Cabral added that contact tracing may prove difficult for those who have been out there for days and unknowingly already infecting others.
“The ideal really is we get the results within 24 hours. The turnaround time (for release of test results) is important," she said.
“Over the course of 10 days when we didn't know that this person is positive, he could’ve mingled with hundreds of people and he could not remember the people he mingled with 3 days before."
IMPROVE GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES
The former health chief urged government to “involve” the public more in the fight against COVID-19 by improving its information and communication campaign.
“From the very start, we have lacked in our communication to the people. We have lacked in inviting them to be co-owners of this particular problem and to invite them into doing these things (health measures/standards)," Cabral said.
“If you do not understand why you need to wear a mask; if you do not understand how to wear a mask properly; if you do not understand why you need to stay away from other people; if you do not understand why you should not go to places that are not essential, then you will do it: you will not wear a mask, and you will continue to go where you want to go.
“And I think what is vital at this point is to prevent people from infecting each other, and to reduce community transmission. And the only way that that can be done is not by tracing, is not by testing. It is by telling the people, ‘let’s do this together," she said.
'GENUINE INCREASE' IN NUMBER OF CASES
David, for his part, emphasized the role of testing, contact tracing, and isolation in further lowering the positivity rate of SARS-COV-2, which is at 14 percent, at least.
The positivity rate refers to the percentage of people who test positive for the virus out of the total number of people tested.
He, however, disagrees with Malacañang’s position that the still increasing number of COVID-19 cases can be attributed to increased testing capacity.
David explains the increase in positive cases is “genuine.”
“The fact that the positivity rate is high, it says that it’s not just the testing but there’s an increase in numbers. And it’s not just the positivity rate, but it’s also the hospital occupancy," the professor said.
He added: "I think 12 of the 17 LGUs in Metro Manila are more than 70-percent occupied in terms of beds and ICUs. So that alone tells us that there is a genuine increase in the number of cases in Metro Manila.”
More than 180,000 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Philippines.