Experts fear surge in COVID-19 cases after easing of age restrictions

Marje Pelayo   •   January 22, 2021   •   403

MANILA, Philippines — Experts from the University of the Philippines OCTA Research team expressed concern over the possible surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the country following the recent relaxation of age-based restrictions.

Malacañang announced on Friday (January 22) that people aged 10 years to 65 years in areas under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) are now allowed to go out.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque further said that the relaxed age-based restrictions will take effect starting February 1, 2021.

According to UP-OCTA Research Professor Ranjit Rye, the government should carefully consider its decision given the looming threat of the UK COVID-19 variant.

“It is still being collected that the new and more contagious UK variant is already in our communities. Why will you change policy in such a drastic way and expose vulnerable groups to more, possibly contagious new variants that will only increase new cases and possibly increase mortality?” Rye said.

“This is against all sensible epidemic management that exists around the world,” he added.

For its part, the Department of Health (DOH) explained that the agency has solid evidence to back its decision and change the existing policy.

The DOH said such a decision went through consultation from the government’s economic cluster before it was approved.

“Ang rational is, we balance the economy and health as long as we continue to implement and comply with the minimum public health standards,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.

“Kahit naman anong age iyang lumalabas as long as compliant tayo, we are protected and we assure that the infection rates would be very low,” she added.

To ensure that the feared surge in cases will not happen, Vergeire said they are working with local government units on the strict implementation of health protocols. MNP (with reports from Aiko Miguel)

AstraZeneca vaccine ‘ineffective’ if B.1.351 (South Africa) variant not contained in Phl — expert

Maris Federez   •   March 4, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — An expert from the UP-OCTA Research on Wednesday warned that AstraZeneca vaccine offers very little protection in fighting off the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

In a virtual press briefing, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a fellow at the UP-OCTA Research, presented studies showing that the South Africa variant lowers the efficacy of several COVID-19 vaccines.

He particularly mentioned the United Kingdom-based AstraZeneca, saying B.1.351 variant significantly decreases the vaccine’s efficacy from 70% to mere 10%.

 “Basically, South Africa decided to abandon the AstraZeneca vaccine. It was no different than injecting water into the patients. With 10% protection, basically, most people would still be able to get mild and moderate COVID-19,” Austriaco said.

Austriaco underscored how imperative it is to eliminate the B.1.351 variant as it could be a potential stumbling block to the country’s goal of achieving herd immunity.

 “The B1.351 variant can resist the AstraZeneca vaccine. If we do not eliminate the B1.351 variant in the Philippines…the 17 million doses of AstraZeneca that we have already bought but have not yet arrived will be ineffective against fighting this particular variant from South Africa,” he said.

“If it is not controlled, if it is not eliminated from the islands, [it will be] more difficult for us to vaccinate the 75 million Filipinos in order to acquire herd immunity,” he added.

Austriaco also said that, with AstraZeneca vaccine, there is still a need for a third shot to boost the two doses that will be given to the vaccinees to ensure that they are protected from the said variant.

“We would need three doses of the remaining vaccines because you would need one booster shot just for the B.1.351 variant,” he said.

The Philippines is expected to receive an initial 487,200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Thursday from the WHO-COVAX facility. Local government units and private companies have also procured around 17 million doses through tripartite agreements.

Recent findings showed that the Philippines has recorded six cases of the South Africa variant. —/mbmf (with details from Aiko Miguel)

PH detects 6 cases of South Africa COVID-19 variant, 30 new cases of UK variant

UNTV News   •   March 2, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines has recorded six new cases of the B.1.351 variant (South Africa variant) of COVID-19; 30 additional cases of the B.1.1.7 variant (UK variant) and 2 cases additional cases with mutations of interest.

An official statement issued by the Department of Health (DOH) on Tuesday said, the new cases were among 8th batch of 350 samples sequenced by the UP-Philippine Genome Center.

Of the six South African variant cases, three are local cases, two are returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) and one case is still being verified as to location.

The three local cases were reported as residents of Pasay City. Meanwhile, the two returning overseas Filipinos arrived in the country from UAE and Qatar; their statuses are currently being verified. Moreover, the DOH is currently verifying if the sixth case is a local case or an imported case.

“To date, there are already 48 countries with reported cases of the B.1.351 variant. While there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe disease, the pattern of mutations within this variant suggests higher transmissibility and may have an impact on vaccine efficacy,” DOH said.

Meanwhile, of the 30 new cases of the UK variant 20 of these are ROFs; three are local cases, and seven are currently being verified if these are local cases or ROFs.

The 20 detected ROFs entered the country from the Middle East, Singapore, and the United States of America between January 20 and February 16, 2021. Thirteen (13) of these are asymptomatic active cases, while seven have now recovered.

On the other hand, the three (3) local B.1.1.7 variant cases are from the Cordillera Administrative Region.

One case is currently active and is admitted to a hospital, one has recovered, and one is a reported fatality. The relation of the 3 local cases to previously reported B.1.1.7 variant cases in the region is currently being investigated.

On the cases with mutations of interest, the latest sequencing results showed that two (2) additional samples from Region 7 were found to have both N501Y and E484K mutations.

The DOH reiterated that despite the arrival of the vaccines in the country, adherence to minimum public health standards is still the best course of action to prevent community transmission and further virus mutations.

Experts confirm detecting 18 more UK-variant cases; 3 samples seen with mutations

Maris Federez   •   February 22, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Health (DOH), the University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center (UP-PGC), and the UP-National Institutes of Health (UP-NIH) on Sunday confirmed to have detected 18 additional B.1.1.7 or UK variant cases among the 7th batch of 757 samples sequenced by the UP-PGC on February 18.

According to the 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 further said that an additional sample from Region 7 belonging to the last (6th) genome sequencing batch was found to have both N501Y and E484K mutations, while two among the 80 Region 7 samples sequenced in the 7th batch were 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 between January 3 to 27 and three are from the Cordillera Administrative Region. 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. The DOH is currently investigating their compliance to isolation protocols and the contact tracing done for them.

Meanwhile, 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 said, all the 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 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 DOH through the Bureau of Quarantine, Centers for Health Development, and regional epidemiology and surveillance units (RESU).

The DOH said they are in close coordination with concerned 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 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 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.

This could be by way of localized lockdowns, active case finding, immediate contact tracing, and isolation/quarantine.

The DOH reiterated to the LGUs the necessity to immediately flag sharp upticks in cases to the DOH in order to activate targeted biosurveillance activities.

The DOH 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. —/mbmf

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