DOH confirms new COVID-19 mutations in Central Visayas

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The Department of Health in Central Visayas reports that two COVID-19 “mutations of concern” have been detected in Cebu and are currently being investigated.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 18) The Department of Health confirmed on Thursday night the detection of two new COVID-19 mutations in Central Visayas.

"Following the enhanced genomic biosurveillance in the country, the Department of Health and the University of the Philippines - Philippine Genome Center (UP-PGC) today confirm the detection of SARS-CoV-2 mutations of potential clinical significance in samples sequenced last week from Central Visayas," the Health Department said in a statement.

The DOH clarified the current available data on the two new mutations of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, are "insufficient to conclude [these] will have significant public health implications."

On Thursday afternoon, the DOH-Central Visayas office (DOH-7) announced that two COVID-19 "mutations of concern" have been detected in Cebu.

In a press briefing, DOH-7 spokesperson Dr. Mary Jean Loreche said these mutations identified as E484K and N501Y were found in the first batch of samples they sent to the PGC for genomic sequencing. This batch covers the period Jan. 30 to Feb. 2 and contained samples from Cebu City, Mandaue City, Lapu-Lapu City, and Cebu province.

"Out of 50, there were 37 samples equivalent to 78% that had two mutations of concern," Loreche said. "And out of these again, 29 out of 50 meaning 58% had a co-occurrence of the two mutations."

These mutations are now called "a variant under investigation or a variant of concern," according to Loreche. The health official explained there is no name yet, as the entire sequence has yet to be identified.

'No cause for panic'

DOH-7 Regional Director Dr. Jaime Bernadas, meanwhile, clarified that these mutations still need further study.

The DOH Central Office reiterated that it is natural for viruses to mutate, but that not all mutations and variants necessarily cause negative effects.

"Nevertheless, the DOH recognizes the potential public health implications of these reported mutations in samples from Region 7," the DOH said. It assured that local health officials have already initiated measures to contain viral transmission in the region, as well as to characterize the cases and areas of concern.

In the briefing, Loreche also bared the two mutations are "also of global concern...as these are mutations that are related to increased transmissibility." While they are believed to be more contagious, Loreche said they have yet to establish if they are more virulent or can cause a more severe disease.

"But for now, based on our data on rising cases...clustering cases, ayan [there], most likely, this is the cause of the high transmissibility," she said.

In its latest report, independent research group OCTA noted a spike in cases in a number of areas in Cebu. The group also said Cebu City’s positivity rate over the past week stood at 13%, way above the ideal rate of below 5% as recommended by the World Health Organization.

The DOH-7 has tallied 5,240 active cases in Central Visayas as of Feb. 17. Of the region’s currently ill patients, Cebu City accounts for 2,668, while Cebu province has 1,029.

According to Loreche, they are also awaiting results of the second batch of 90 samples they sent to PGC for genome sequencing.

CNN Philippines' Cebu-based correspondent Dale Israel contributed to this report.