New COVID-19 variant from UK detected in PH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 13) — The new coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom, and which is believed to be more contagious, is now in the Philippines, the Department of Health reported on Wednesday.

The DOH, together with the Philippine Genome Center, confirmed that the B.1.1.7. SARS-CoV-2 variant, also known as the UK variant, has been detected after samples from a Filipino who returned home from the United Arab Emirates on Jan. 7 yielded positive genome sequencing results.

“The said patient is a male resident of Quezon City who departed for Dubai on December 27, 2020 for business purposes and arrived in the Philippines last January 7, 2021 via Emirates Flight No. EK 332,” the department said.

In a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials aired Wednesday night, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III also bared that the patient is a 29-year-old real estate agent from Brgy. Kamuning.

He was tested for COVID-19 and was quarantined in a hotel upon arrival, the DOH said. After testing positive for the virus a day after, he was referred to an isolation facility in Quezon City, while his samples were sent to PGC for whole genome sequencing. He also underwent x-ray and was found to have pneumonia.

The DOH said the patient was with his girlfriend during the trip, but she tested negative for COVID-19 upon arrival. She 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.

According to Duque, the patient attended a business meeting in Dubai with another individual on Dec. 30. He and his girlfriend also reportedly visited malls, groceries, and tourist sites while there.

Contact tracing was immediately done by authorities, and initially identified contacts are now under strict home quarantine. None of them are currently exhibiting symptoms, according to the DOH. Meanwhile, the other passengers who were with the patient during the flight are also being located. Those aboard Emirates Flight No. EK 332 are advised by the DOH to get in touch with their barangay health emergency response teams.

As an added precautionary measure, the QC government said the patient’s immediate household contacts have also been brought to an isolation facility where they were tested.

Following the development, the DOH said weekly genomic biosurveillance among incoming passengers, local cases, re-infected patients, and those with reported clustering of cases will be intensified. It added that it has already coordinated with the Department of Interior and Local Government for the expansion of contact tracing to include third-generation close contacts for known cases of the UK variant. All close contacts of these cases will be required to undergo strict 14-day facility-based quarantine.

The DOH also reiterated its call to the national and local governments, as well as the public, for the stricter implementation and observance of protocols against COVID-19.

An expert earlier warned that the new UK variant could result in a 15-fold increase in infections in just a month if it becomes the dominant variant in the country. This means that from over 30,000, new cases per month could surge to as high as nearly 300,000, he said.

READ: PH can see 15-fold increase in infections if new COVID-19 variant takes over – expert

In an interview with CNN Philippines' The Final Word on Wednesday, medical expert Dra. Lulu Bravo said she was already expecting the detection of the UK variant in the country due to the nature of viruses.

"Viruses have mutations as a form of defense for themselves. They have to mutate because they have to adapt in an environment," said Bravo. "The higher the incidence of the virus in a place, the more there can be mutations."

Bravo explained the UK variant is not as deadly as the old COVID-19 variants but is "highly more transmissible" according to initial scientific studies.

"We need really more preventive measures to try and reduce the transmissibility. It can be done by doing your (wearing of) face masks, washing hands, and distancing," the expert advised.

Earlier, Health spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said the DOH is also monitoring global developments on three other reported COVID-19 variants, including the ones found in South Africa and Sabah, and another supposedly detected in Nigeria.

The Philippines suspended all flights from the United Kingdom beginning Dec. 24, a ban that later included 31 other countries and territories, following reports of the new COVID-19 variants. To date, the country has recorded 492,700 cases, which include 9,699 deaths and 458,523 recoveries.