By Tracy Cabrera
MANILA — Detecting two highly contagious variants of the coronavirus in all cities in Metro Manila, the Department of Health (DoH) opined that the mutated viruses could be driving the rapid increase in infections in the past few days but it also added that the root of the problem is the public’s failure to comply with minimum health safety protocols and some “institutional gaps” that have contributed un the failure to curb the spread of the ongoing pandemic.
The health department, however, said it was still waiting for confirmation from the World Health Organization (WHO) to validate that there is widespread community transmission of the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom and the B.1.351 variant first reported by South Africa late last year.
But WHO representative to the Philippines Rabindra Abeyasinghe, speaking in a televised briefing on Monday, did not attribute the flare-up solely to the variants but to also to vaccine optimism that had led to people letting their guard down and become complacent about the quarantine protocols.
Abeyasinghe said that WHO had been seeing a global increase in Covid-19 cases in the past four weeks.
“After stabilization of transmission in January and early February, we have seen now that globally, in several countries, we are seeing an increase in transmission,” Abeyasinghe noted.
The increase has also been seen in countries that have had successful vaccine rollouts so the situation cannot just be blamed on slow government response. But in addition to a change in people’s behavior, the increase in cases can also be linked to the spread of the new variants of the coronavirus.
“So the mix of these factors could actually be causing higher levels of transmission in the Philippines also,” the WHO official pointed out.
Health undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire conceded that the presence of the highly transmissible variants in Metro Manila is a major factor in the faster increase in daily cases than at the height of the pandemic in July and August last year.
“We saw that in all the cities (in Metro Manila) we have either the UK variant or South Africa variant. In other cities, there are both the UK and South Africa variants,” Vergeire disclosed in a media briefing.
“So, yes, we can say the variants are here and yes [their presence] has contributed to the increase in the number of cases, how they increased very fast. But that is not the only factor,” she added.
Through genetic analysis of samples from select Covid-positive patients, the Philippine Genome Center has so far detected the B.1.1.7 variant in 223 cases and six of these have died while 167 have already recovered and 50 are remain as active cases.
The UK variant has been detected in seven of the country’s 17 regions, mostly in Metro Manila (76 cases) and the Cordillera Administrative Region (41).
On the other hand, the B.1.351 variant has been detected in 152 patients; four of whom have died, 86 have recovered and 61 are active cases.
The South Africa variant has been detected in six regions, mostly in Metro Manila (105).
The Philippine Genome Center has also detected the P.1 variant first detected in Brazil in one Covid-positive Filipino who returned from Brazil and had since recovered.
Aside from the two mutant variants, a coronavirus variant, called P.3 and first detected in the Philippines, has also been found in 104 patients with 96 of them having recovered while the rest are still active cases.
According to the DoH, there is not enough evidence to conclude whether the P.3 variant was a ‘variant of concern’ even as the highest number of confirmed cases in a single day was recorded two days ago with 8,019 new infections recorded by the agency.
Meanwhile, the DoH has also acknowledged that hospitals are hobbled by staff shortage as many of their health workers have either caught the virus, gone on leave or resigned so that the hospitals cannot expand their capacity without hiring new workers.
“(W)e’re discussing the health care worker augmentation and how we can find ways to deploy more personnel,” Vergeire said.
Last year, she said, the DoH asked other regions that were “not so much affected by Covid-19” to deploy their health workers to high-risk areas.
Health experts and advocates blame the surge on the premature reopening of the economy, but trade and industry secretary Ramon Lopez sees gatherings as the reason for the big waves of daily cases.
In a radio interview, Lopez enthused that the number of new infections was not so high when the government gradually reopened the economy last year. But behind the current surge in cases, he said, were “secret parties” where people who were tired of the lockdown met up with family and friends.
Asked if he had data supporting this claim, Lopez replied: “No data. But those were observations. Look around.” (AI|MTVN)