Experts urge vigilance against new COVID variant

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 14) — The Philippines must now brace for local transmissions of the new COVID-19 variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom after it was detected in a Filipino who recently returned from abroad, health experts warned Thursday.

In an interview on CNN Philippines' The Source, Dr. Rontgene Solante, head of San Lazaro Hospital Adult Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Department, said the Philippines must be more aggressive in the implementation of health protocols, and all returning travelers must be strictly quarantined, even if they come from countries that have not yet reported the more contagious variant.

"Even if a country has not reported the UK variant, as long as there is anybody outside the country, I think we have learned our lesson now. We need to be vigilant in doing testing and sequencing, particularly on anybody who is coming from another country," Solante said.

He added: "Definitely, we need to strengthen our health protocol measures especially in public places. One of the more important aspects here is really looking at a possible local transmission."

The Department of Health, together with the Philippine Genome Center, confirmed that the B.1.1.7. SARS-CoV-2 variant, which was first reported in the UK, has been detected in samples from a Filipino who returned home from the United Arab Emirates on Jan. 7.

The patient has been described as a male resident of Quezon City who departed for Dubai on December 27, 2020 for business purposes and arrived back in the Philippines last Jan. 7, 2021 on Emirates Flight No. EK 332.

READ: New COVID-19 variant from UK detected in PH 

Meanwhile, OCTA Research fellow Fr. Nic Austriaco said in a separate interview that the government must check if the new COVID-19 variant has affected the number of infections in Metro Manila.

"We have to look at the numbers carefully. If there is any hint that the variant has taken hold of the pandemic in the NCR, then the government has to do whatever it can do to reduce social mixing and to mitigate mobility...What we want to avoid another lockdown," he told CNN Philippines' News.PH.

According to Solante, with the new variant having a 70% to 80% transmissibility rate, authorities in charge of testing and tracing must consider the ones with whom the patient has had contact prior to his departure for Dubai, in the airplane, and at the airport. A house-to-house surveillance must even be considered on the ones he had interacted with at least a week before he left the Philippines.

Although more contagious, Philippine Genome Center Executive Director Dr. Cynthia Salome said it does not mean the new variant is more dangerous.

"The data suggests that it is highly infectious...but it's not any deadlier than the typical SARS-Cov-2. So even if an individual is infected with this virus, there's no evidence the symptoms will be any more severe," she told CNN Philippines' The Final Word.

But does this mean that the United Arab Emirates and other countries that have not yet detected the UK variant be part of an expanded travel ban? Solante said this may not be necessary for now, but the Philippines must be extra vigilant.

"At this point, I don't think we need not do that ban, but it would be enough that any person coming from any country outside the Philippines, they should be tested for protection," he said.

Solante added: "In countries that have not yet [reported the new variant], we cannot assure that they don't have them. Their ability to detect will also depend on how extensive are they doing the surveillance in that particular country."

For his part, Austriaco said the government should maintain its travel ban on certain countries and make sure international travelers will follow quarantine protocols.

"We really urge the government to maintain the travel ban and the strict 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers, because even if the variant is here and maybe there are few patients with that variants, we don't want to unnecessarily increase the number of variants in the country," he said.

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.