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DOH: UK virus variant detected in Philippines

The Department of Health (DOH) and Philippine Genome Center (PGC) on Wednesday announced that the new coronavirus variant initially discovered in the United Kingdom has been detected in the Philippines.

“The DOH and the PGC today officially confirm the detection of the B.1.1.7. SARS-CoV-2 variant (UK variant) in the country after samples from a Filipino who arrived from the United Arab Emirates on January 7 yielded positive genome sequencing results,” they said in a statement.

Believed to have first emerged in the UK in September last year, the coronavirus variant is more infectious but does not appear to make the illness more severe. However, a more transmissible virus means more cases as a result.

The DOH said the patient is a male resident of Quezon City who left for Dubai on December 27 for business purposes and returned to the country on January 7 aboard Emirates Flight No. EK 332.

The patient was swabbed and underwent quarantine in a hotel upon his return to the Philippines.

After his test results came back positive the following day, he was transferred to a Quezon City facility while his samples were sent to the PGC.

According to the Quezon City government, the patient has been at the facility since January 8. "On the night of January 13, the city government and the city health department were informed that he has the so-called United Kingdom variant," it added.

The patient’s female partner, meanwhile, tested negative for COVID-19 and is currently under “strict” quarantine and monitoring.

“Both of the returning Filipinos had no exposure to a confirmed case prior to their departure to Dubai nor had any travel activities outside Quezon City,” the DOH said.

The couple’s contacts who have so far been identified by authorities are asymptomatic and currently under strict home quarantine.

During President Rodrigo Duterte's weekly televised briefing with Cabinet officials on Wednesday night, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said that the patient is 29 years old and resides with his parents, who have not reported to their office and who only went out of their home for essentials before the positive result.

Duterte said health and local officials are taking the necessary steps to attend to the patients and to ensure the infection does not spread.

"Ngayong gabi, pupuntahan nila so we can take steps to isolate, sequester and maybe treat them na hindi na mapasa sa iba," he said.

"Sana hindi ito more dangerous," he added, referring to the variant.

In an earlier statement, the Quezon City government said that the patient's "immediate household contacts" have been brought to an isolation facility, where they were also tested, and that it has "heightened surveillance" in his community.

"The City Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit has conducted contact tracing on the resident’s close contacts upon his arrival like the health workers at the isolation facility where he was brought, and the Barangay Health Emergency Response Team (BHERT) that brought him from the hotel to the isolation facility," it also said.

The DOH also said contact tracing for other passengers was underway after it secured the flight manifest.

“Meanwhile, weekly genomic biosurveillance among incoming passengers, local cases, re-infected patients, and those with reported clustering of cases will be intensified,” the department vowed.

In a separate statement, the DOH stressed that the virus's mode of transmission has not changed.

"This means that the Minimum Public Health Standards remain to be the effective measure against the spread of the disease," it said.

"Local Government Units are also urged to be extra vigilant and ensure strict implementation of existing quarantine and isolation protocols."

Travel restrictions

The Philippines has barred arrivals from 30 countries due to the UK variant, which has been detected in at least 41 other countries. 

However, the UAE is not among the countries included in the ban.

Filipino citizens will be allowed to enter the Philippines as long as they undergo screening for COVID-19 and facility-based quarantine for 14 days.

Last week Hong Kong announced that a woman who had arrived from the Philippines was found to have the variant.

Health officials here said that her relatives have tested negative. She herself had tested negative prior to departing for Hong Kong.

At least six other variants are being monitored across the globe:

  • South Africa: 501Y.V2, found in 10 countries and believed to be even more infectious than the UK variant
  • Malaysia: A701B
  • Nigeria: P681H
  • Denmark: Cluster 5
  • China: D614G, most widespread and dominant
  • Japan: B.1.1.248, detected in travelers from Brazil

British scientists earlier said the B.1.1.7 has key mutations, including one that affects the “spike” protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells.

A study conducted by Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch found that the vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer appeared to work against the UK and South Africa variants.

Moderna's vaccine is also expected to be effective against the UK variant, the Dutch national drugs authority said. — BM, GMA News