File photo showing most Filipinos wearing protective face masks but some with face shields up in flagrant violation of health experts’ advice to practice a minimum health safety protocols. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Cellona)
By Tracy Cabrera
MANILA — Amidst the call from several sectors, including the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) for the easing of quarantine restrictions to fast track the country’s economic recovery, health experts have warned that the proposal could lead to a spike in the number of Covid-19 infections and transmissions that could worsen the health situation in the country.
This came following confirmation from the Department of Health (DoH), University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center (UP-PGC) and UP-National Institutes of Health (UP-NIH) that they have detected 18 additional B.1.1.7 or UK (United Kingdom) variant cases among the seventh batch of 757 samples sequenced by the UP-PGC last February 18.
According to a DoH advisory, the additional number brings the total B.1.1.7 variant cases in the country to 62.
The joint DoH, UP-PGC and UP-NIH report disclosed that an additional sample from Region 7 belonging to the last (sixth) genome sequencing batch was found to have both N501Y and E484K mutations, while two among the 80 Region 7 samples sequenced in the seventh batch was also found to have both mutations, bringing the total to 34.
Thirteen of the B.1.1.7 cases are returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) who entered the country from January 3 to 27 and three are from the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) while the other two are still currently being verified if they are local cases or ROFs.
The health department said the 13 ROF cases are now tagged as recovered, adding that it currently investigating their compliance to isolation protocols and the contact tracing done for them.
As this developed, two of the three cases from CAR, both 12-year-old males, are connected to the original cluster from Samoki, Bontoc, Mountain Province. The third case, a 41-year-old female is connected to the first La Trinidad cluster.
The DoH clarified that all of the new cases are now tagged as recovered and all close contacts have completed quarantine following immediate contact tracing and isolation to swiftly contain transmission among the Bontoc and La Trinidad clusters.
Meanwhile, the Center for Health Development Central (CHDC) Visayas has been notified of the additional cases found with mutations and investigation is now underway to aid in curbing transmission.
Case investigation and contact tracing for these new detections have also been jointly initiated by the health department through the Bureau of Quarantine (BoQ), Centers for Health Development and regional epidemiology and surveillance units (RESU).
The DoH said they are in close coordination with concerned local government units (LGUs), local health offices, local epidemiology and surveillance units, and law enforcement authorities regarding this development.
The health department said that they, along with the UP-PGC and UP-NIH, are preparing to submit these new findings to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID).
This move is seen to aid in the ongoing global effort to track and study new and emerging genomic changes in the SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2) virus, which vaccine manufacturers may use to recalibrate vaccines and ensure efficacy against Covid-19, the DoH said.
The DoH calls on concerned LGUs where cases with the variant of concern and mutations with potential clinical significance have been detected to closely monitor their respective local situations and implement measures in accordance with the national PDITR strategy as needed.
The health agency reiterated to the LGUs the necessity to immediately flag sharp upticks in cases to the DoH in order to activate targeted bio-surveillance activities.
It further stressed that “as long as Covid-19 transmission persists, our strengthened biosurveillance will continue to detect mutations.”
“The DoH emphasizes the need to strictly practice and enforce minimum public health standards in order to lower infection rates and consequently reduce the risk of mutations of potential clinical and epidemiological significance. The goal is to bring down transmission rates to levels where biosurveillance can no longer detect mutations of interest,” it concluded. (AI/MTVN)