PH eyes 'fast containment' of South Africa variant amid data of lower vaccine efficacy

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 2) — The Health Department is racing against time to contain the spread of the more transmissible COVID-19 variant first found in South Africa after six cases were confirmed in the country on Tuesday.

Stopping its spread is crucial because several studies show that the B.1.351 variant has a mutation that renders some COVID-19 vaccines less effective in protecting against the coronavirus.

"Meron siyang isang component o mutation na nakakaapekto sa vaccine efficacy, ang tinatawag nilang immune escape," Health Spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a media briefing on Tuesday.

[Translation: It has a component or mutation that affects vaccine efficacy. It's called immune escape.]

She explained "immune escape" as the vaccine having trouble in helping the inoculated patient build antibodies to fight off the virus because of the presence of the E484K mutation. The variant could lower the efficacy and protection of some vaccines, she added.

One of these vaccines is UK-made AstraZeneca, OCTA Research fellow Fr. Nic Austriaco told CNN Philippines' News.PH. He said AstraZeneca doses are only 10% effective against the South Africa variant.

"If the South African variant spreads in the Philippines, then the 17 million doses of AstraZeneca that we are supposed to receive will actually be useless. It will be like injecting water," the researcher said.

South African researchers believe this new variant is around 50% more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain. It has a different pattern of mutation that causes more physical alterations in the structure of the spike protein compared to the variant first found in the United Kingdom. Researchers said that the E484K mutation found in the South Africa variant appears to affect the receptor binding domain — the part of the spike protein most important for attaching to cells. It could help the virus partly escape the effects of vaccines.

This is the reason why the South Africa variant is more alarming than the UK variant.

"Itong South African variant ay mas binabantayan. Kaya gusto natin, as much as possible, fast containment tayo nitong variant na ito so we can prevent further spread," said Vergeire. 

[Translation: We are monitoring the South Africa variant. We want to contain it fast, as much as possible, to prevent its further spread.]

Sinovac, the only vaccine available in the Philippines, has not published data on how the South Africa variant affects its vaccine's efficacy. Vergeire said they will continue the rollout of CoronaVac since it can still offer protection.

Austriaco also urged the public to take "whatever vaccine is offered" to prevent the spread of the more infectious variants which he called "Super COVID."

"Whatever vaccine is offered to you receive it now especially because with the variant," he said. "When the super COVID variants are in the Philippines, we have to vaccinate as much as possible, as fast as possible."

Of the six cases of this variant, three were local cases from Pasay City, two were returning overseas Filipinos, and one case is undergoing verification.

Pasay Mayor Emi Calixto-Rubiano said the cases in their city are aged 21 to 40; one is a seaman staying in a transient house while the other two are residents who regularly travel for work. She added they have recovered, but were subjected to another swab test to be sure. One tested negative again, while the other two are awaiting their result.

DOH stressed that travel restrictions and border controls are not the only way to stop its spread. Vergeire said they are removing some COVID-19 patients in Pasay from their homes to transfer them to quarantine facilities, adding enhanced contact and backtracing the source can also stop it from getting transmitted.

"Everything is being considered pero kailangan natin maintindihan na hindi lang lockdown o closing of borders ang pwede masagawa para malimitahan ang pagkalat," the official said.

[Translation: We need to understand that lockdowns or border restriction are not the only ways to limit its spread.]

However, Austriaco said increasing mobility such as through easing restrictions in Metro Manila to Modified General Community Quarantine, will only worsen the situation and even hamper vaccination.

He said there are some areas where MGCQ can be implemented, but the National Capital Region is not one of them.

"Our concern is that Metro Manila — we are seeing cases, especially concentrated in Pasay but also, in the northern cities...There are cases in Malabon, in Caloocan, and so we are worried these cases will spread if we increase mobility at this time," the OCTA fellow said.

Vergeire added that there is a probability that the 160% hike in new COVID-19 cases in Pasay is linked to the recently-detected South Africa variant in the city, but more reviews need to be conducted. She also said it is too early to say if there is local transmission of the more contagious variant in the city.

Only one barangay, Barangay 183, is under localized enhanced community quarantine, while 210 houses from 77 barangays are also locked down.