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Duque: DOH backs travel ban on Hong Kong over new virus variant

Duque: DOH backs travel ban on Hong Kong over new virus variant

The Department of Health (DOH) has recommended a ban on travelers from Hong Kong after the detection in the territory of the B.1.1.529 coronavirus variant, which was declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

"Yes. Ikinokonsidera na rin 'yan. Kaya nga sumulat na kami, nag-rekomenda kami kay Executive Secretary [Salvador Medialdea] na kung puwedeng maaksyunan ito agad para makasiguro tayo na hindi makapasok ito," Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said in a Dobol B sa News TV interview on Saturday.

(Yes, it is also being considered. That is why we have written and recommended to the Executive Secretary if it could be immediately acted upon for us to ensure the variant will not enter the country.)

The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) has approved the temporary suspension of inbound international flights from South Africa, Botswana, and other countries with local cases or with the likelihood of occurrences of the B.1.1.529 (Omicron) variant, weeks prior to the Christmas season.

"Kailangan talagang tugunan ito dahil hindi naman ito karaniwang panahon, ito ay Christmas season. Kinakailangan talaga na pag-aralan itong maigi. Hopefully within the morning we can get some answers," Duque said.

(There is really a need to address the concern because we are in an unusual season, it’s Christmas season. It is really necessary to study it carefully. We hope that within the morning we can get some answers.)

Duque said the DOH was awaiting the IATF's amended recommendation within the day.

"[I]t was upon my prodding of IATF members to ban travelers from select African countries and also now our experts' group will amend yesterday's recommendation for Hong Kong given the recent declaration by the WHO of the B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern and that we have many OFWs who would want to come home for Christmas," he said.

"I am awaiting their new recommendation which will be for approval by the Office of the Executive  Secretary." 

Duque hinted at the possibility that the Omicron variant could change the COVID-19 downward trend in the Philippines.

"Posibleng magbago, kasi titingnan natin kung ito nga ba ay peligroso. So mag-iingat tayo. Ano ba ang tamang pag-iingat? Kasama riyan ang mas mahigpit na international border controls."

(COVID-19's downward trend might change if we find out that the variant is really dangerous. We have to take precautions. Proper precaution includes stricter international border controls.)

Interviewed at the Laging Handa briefing, DOH Health Promotion Bureau/ Disease Prevention and Control Bureau Director Dr. Beverly Ho said it would take time for experts to determine if the Omicron variant could have an effect on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

“[E]ven WHO said it will take time para natin malaman ito kasi pag-aaralan pa po ito sa mga laboratoryo," Ho said.

(Even the WHO said it will take time for us to know because it will still be studied in laboratories.)

Ho echoed Duque's statement that there needs to be stricter border control, citing the IATF's temporary suspension of inbound international flights from South Africa, Botswana, and other countries to prevent the entry of the Omicron variant.

However, Ho believes the Omicron variant will eventually enter the Philippines as it is impossible for the country to permanently close its borders. 

“Sa mga infectious disease like this, imposible naman na forever tayong magsara ng mga borders natin – eventually, talagang makakapasok siya. As evidenced sa Delta variant, buong mundo na po mayroong Delta variant,” she said.

“So it was not a matter of makakapasok ba siya but it’s really a matter of when – kung mas later ba at mas handa na iyong sistema natin.”

(For infectious diseases like this, it is impossible for us to close our borders permanently. Eventually, the variant will enter, as evidenced by the Delta variant, which has spread around the world. So it was not a matter of whether it could enter, but really a matter of when, if it would come later or when our system was more ready.)

According to a Saturday 24 Oras Weekend report, the two Omicron variant cases in Hong Kong were two guests at a hotel.

According to authorities, the first case, a traveler from South Africa, may have possibly infected the second case, a traveler from Canada.

The travelers had facing rooms in the hotel.

"The chances are this virus has traveled to many parts of the world, and those other places have not yet realized it or recognized it," said Hong Kong University epidemiologist Dr. Ben Cowling.

Authorities are meanwhile searching for other guests who had checked-in at the hotel. —LBG/VBL, GMA News