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

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 6) — Experts heaved a sigh of relief following the announcement that the more contagious coronavirus variant has not been detected in the Philippines, warning it could result in a 15-fold increase in infections in just a month if it becomes the dominant variant in the country.

Dr. John Wong, founder of the health research institution Epimetrics, who is now part of the technical working group studying the recent mutations, explained on Wednesday just how contagious the variant discovered in the United Kingdom is.

"Normally, at our current Ro of 1.1, 20,000 cases at the beginning of the month will be about 32,000 cases by the end of the month," Wong said in an online forum along with other experts led by Department of Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.

READ: Vergeire heads team of doctors assigned to study new COVID-19 variants

Ro or the reproduction rate refers to the number of people a COVID-19 case can infect.

"But if the variant takes over, the 20,000 cases can become almost 300,000 cases by the end of the month. This is what we want to avoid," Wong stressed.

He added that given this surge in infections, deaths could reach 684 instead of just 74 without the new variant.

Although there's no evidence the mutated coronavirus can cause a more severe illness or higher risk of death, the sheer number of COVID-19 cases would overwhelm the healthcare system, reducing its capacity to treat patients, experts said.

"This can become very serious, very dangerous if the variant (from the UK) becomes the dominant strain," Wong said. "But we should also remember that it's within our power to control this through our own behavior."

What must be done?

Currently, the dominant variant in the country is still the D614G, which caused the surge in COVID-19 cases in August, according to the Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Marissa Alejandria, head of the PSMID, said viruses naturally mutate, but the mode of transmission remains the same.

The coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets and direct contact with the infected. Thus, the wearing of face mask and face shield, along with proper cough and hand hygiene, would reduce the transmission rate, Wong said.

Crowded places must be avoided and enclosed spaces should be well-ventilated. Those who experience respiratory symptoms should seek early consultation.

READ: Don't let your guard down, experts say amid threat of new COVID-19 variants

The Philippines has imposed a travel ban on foreign nationals from at least 21 countries and territories to prevent the entry of the new variant. Vergeire said the Departments of Health and Foreign Affairs have recommended travel restrictions on six more countries.

The other variant discovered in South Africa, also believed to be more contagious, has not been detected in the Philippines as well. Both variants were not found following the whole genome sequencing conducted on 305 samples from coronavirus patients admitted in hospitals in November and December, and inbound travelers who tested positive for COVID-19 upon arriving at the airport.

This genomic surveillance will continue to be practiced throughout the year, according to Philippine Genome Center Executive Director Cynthia Saloma, to monitor the presence of any new variant.