Image from the Facebook page of the municipality of Bontoc shows members of the emergency and response team manning a checkpoint to monitor the entry of individuals during the imposition of the ‘tengaw,’ or cultural lockdown last Jan. 9. The tengaw is the indigenous variation of a lockdown which, once invoked, means no one can enter or leave the community for a day or more, depending on the consensus of the council of elders. /STAR/File / Sheila Crisostomo (The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines — Two minors were among the 16 new cases of the more transmissible UK variant of COVID-19 detected in the country, mostly in Bontoc, Mountain Province, the Department of Health (DOH) reported yesterday.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the detection of the new cases of B.1.1.7 variant, commonly known as the UK variant, was due to the government’s strengthened bio-surveillance activities.
The development came more than a week after a 29-year-old real estate agent from Kamuning, Quezon City tested positive for the UK variant – the country’s first case – after arriving from Dubai last Dec. 17.
The minors among the 12 cases in Bontoc are aged five and 10. Of the cases recorded in Bontoc, one is 18 years old and three are above 60 years old. Eleven of the cases – seven males – are from one barangay. The gender of the minors was not specified.
“Just like what we have been saying before, it was only a matter of time before it arrived here in the country. And now because of strong surveillance system, we were able to detect 16 new cases,” Duque noted at a press briefing.
DOH data showed that aside from the 12 in Bontoc, two are returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from Lebanon and two others are local cases detected in La Trinidad, Benguet and in Calamba, Laguna.
Despite this development, two scientists said it is “premature” to assume there is now an ongoing transmission of the new variant.
According to Research Institute for Tropical Medicine director Celia Carlos, there are three conditions set by the World Health Organization (WHO) for a situation to be considered a community transmission of the new strain of COVID-19.
First, there should be a large number of cases not linkable through transmission chains. Aside from this, there should be a large number of cases from sentinel sites if there is existing surveillance.
The third condition is the existence of “three multiple unrelated-clusters in several areas of the country.”
“Considering that investigation is ongoing, it may be premature for us now to determine whether there is ongoing community transmission. We need to wait for the results of the investigation,” Carlos said.
Her position was echoed by Edsel Maurice Salvana, director of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institute of Health at the University of the Philippines-Manila. Salvana pointed that the earliest UK variant among the 16 cases was detected last December.
Salvana added they “looked back at cases from October, November to December” and found no widespread transmission of cases in the country.
Aside from this, he underscored that a majority of the new cases belong to one cluster and are related, apparently referring to the cases in Bontoc.
“Right now there is no evidence of community transmission but it does not mean that it’s not there. We will continue to look,” he maintained.
DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire reported that last Dec. 13, a native of Bontoc got tested but was negative for COVID-19.
“On Dec. 14, that person went back to his hometown and they had small celebration with their families. There was a ritual as part of their belief and after that, they started to manifest symptoms,” she added.
Contact tracing was immediately initiated to contain the spread of the infection. Investigation is still underway to identify the nature of their possible exposure and travel histories.
Vergeire said the DOH has recommended a two-week extension of the lockdown imposed by the local government two weeks ago to “confine the cases in the area.”
She added that northern Luzon posted the highest number of cases of the new variant primarily because the Cordillera Autonomous Region, to which Benguet and Mountain Province belong, submitted the most swab specimens – around 300 – for genome sequencing.
The Abra provincial government announced it has temporarily suspended the issuance of passes for those traveling to Baguio, Benguet and other provinces in the Cordillera until further notice.
Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong has ordered strict enforcement of health rules, saying the COVID-19 UK variant may have already reached the city.
“We beg your indulgence to comply with our health measures and on our part, we will continue to do our best to address this concern with all our control systems in place. Let’s continue to help each other,” Magalong said in an appeal to his constituents.
In a report released yesterday, OCTA Research Group said the 12 cases of UK variant discovered in Bontoc confirmed the patterns observed in the post-holiday surge in the province.
“The efforts of the mayor of Bontoc and the Department of Health in actively seeking to have viral cases sequenced are commendable,” read the report.
“Based on the sampling, it is estimated that the prevalence of the UK variant in the Mountain Province is about one out of three. Mountain Province, Benguet and Kalinga continue to have an increase in daily new COVID cases,” it added.
In an interview with The Chiefs on One News/TV 5 on Friday night, OCTA Research fellow and UST visiting professor of biology Fr. Nicanor Austriaco said they have encouraged the DOH to sample viruses from regions experiencing surges to make sure that no new variant is driving them.
Aside from Mountain Province, surges were also recorded in Benguet, Kalinga and Zamboanga del Sur. There were also increases in Cebu and Leyte, although OCTA noted that they have already slowed down.
Austriaco reiterated their concern over the decision to relax age restrictions in areas under modified general community quarantine, noting the impact of the UK variant in other countries.
“We can appreciate the government’s urgency to try to stimulate the economy, but doing this by increasing mobility also endangers the stability of the pandemic,” he said.
“We are very wary and we would like to emphasize that we are taking a big risk in increasing mobility at this time when the (reproduction number of the) pandemic is not below 1,” he added, referring to the indicator on how many people a COVID positive individual can infect.
Regarding the two cases from Lebanon, DOH epidemiologist Althea de Guzman reported the two OFWs arrived in the Philippines from Lebanon last Dec. 29 via Philippine Airlines flight PR 8661.
One of them, aged 64 years, had indicated Jaro, Iloilo CIty as her address. The patient was isolated in San Juan, Metro Manila and discharged on Jan. 9.
De Guzman said the other is a 47-year-old Filipina who declared Binangonan, Rizal as her address. The patient was quarantined in New Clark City and discharged from isolation on Jan. 13. The DOH used the flight manifest as part of contact tracing for their co-passengers.
Hazy contact record
For the cases in La Trinidad and Calamba City, authorities said both had no known contact to any confirmed case of COVID-19. They also had no history of travel outside the Philippines.
The 23-year-old male from Calamba City was discharged from quarantine after testing negative for the virus last Jan. 16.
De Guzman added the La Trinidad case, a 22-year-old male, is currently undergoing quarantine at the Benguet Temporary Treatment and Monitoring Facility.
“All of these cases are under investigation to determine their exposure or if they have significant travel history outside of the country,” she maintained. Data show that of the 16 cases, three have already recovered.
Thirteen remain active cases – three of whom are asymptomatic and 10 are exhibiting mild symptoms.
For her part, Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases president Marissa Alejandria said a virus naturally mutates to survive.
She warned the virus could mutate further if the public lets its guard down or if the government eases its enforcement of health protocols.
“The virus is widespread. We are all potentially exposed so we want travelers to be quarantined to cut that transmission. If you develop symptoms, consult right away, isolate, mask yourself to prevent transmission,” Alejandria added. – Janvic Mateo, Artemio Dumlao