COVER STORY

FAST FACTS: New coronavirus variants detected in PH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — A number of nations face fresh challenges months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with new virus variants seen as hurdles in crisis response.

Experts tagged variants first reported in other countries including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, and the US as highly contagious — with some even possibly capable of dodging protection from newly developed vaccines.

The Philippines was not spared from them. The country has so far logged cases of the Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma variants — variants first discovered in the UK, South Africa, India, and Brazil — triggering localized lockdowns, massive testing, and intensive contact tracing in areas of concern.

A new variant called Theta was also discovered in the Philippines and classified initially as a "variant of interest," but it was downgraded by the World Health Organization in July.

Here's what we know so far about the COVID-19 variants present in the country:

Alpha variant

What it is

The B.1.1.7 SARS-CoV-2 variant, now labeled as the Alpha variant, has had a "large number of mutations" and is associated with increased virus transmissibility, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers said the variant first emerged in the UK in September 2020.

First detection in PH

The variant was first detected in the country in January. Samples from a Filipino who returned home from the United Arab Emirates yielded positive genome sequencing results, health officials confirmed.

Where it stands

As of August 15, at least 2,232 people in the country have been infected with the Alpha variant.

Are vaccines effective?

Earlier studies stated the absence of evidence that the variant would have an impact on the efficacy of developed vaccines.

However, UK researchers reported in February that a mutation allowing COVID-19 to escape antibody protection — dubbed, E484K — was found in some samples of the variant.

Beta variant

What it is

The variant was first discovered in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in October 2020. It also has multiple mutations in the spike protein, according to the US CDC.

First detection in PH

The DOH announced the first six cases of the Beta variant on March 2.

Where it stands

As of August 15, at least 2,483 cases of the variant have been recorded in the country.

Are vaccines effective?

Experts expressed concern over this variant after researchers in South Africa warned it could impact the efficacy of vaccines.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the variant has a component of "immune escape," wherein the vaccine may have trouble in helping the inoculated patient build antibodies to fight the virus because of the presence of the E484K mutation.

OCTA Research Group fellow and molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco earlier warned that the AstraZeneca vaccine, in particular, may not do its job of protecting the public should this variant continue to spread. Quoting global studies, Austriaco said the variant dramatically decreases the product's efficacy from 70% to just 10%.

Despite this, the World Health Organization continues to back the use of the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm.

Gamma variant

What it is

The Gamma variant was first publicly reported by Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases. It was identified among four travelers from Brazil, who were tested during an airport screening in the East Asian country.

The US CDC said there is evidence some mutations of this variant may affect virus transmissibility, as well as the ability of antibodies generated through previous infection.

First detection in PH

The variant was found in samples of an OFW who returned from Brazil and hails from Western Visayas, the DOH announced in March.

Where it stands

The country has reported two cases of the Gamma variant.

Delta variant

What it is

The variant first detected in India was earlier described as a "double mutant. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July said that the Delta or B.1.617.2 variant is about as transmissible as chickenpox — with each infected person infecting eight or nine others on average.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the World Health Organization, said the Delta variant is "on its way" to becoming the dominant variant globally due to its significantly increased transmissibility.

Where it stands

The country has reported 807 cases of the Delta variant as of mid-August.

Are vaccines effective?

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante said there is still no proof that the variant would significantly affect the efficacy of available vaccines.

Lambda variant (Variant of Interest)

What it is

The Lambda variant was first identified in Peru in December. The World Health Organization designated it as a "variant of interest," a degree lower than the variants of concern such as the Alpha, Beta, and Delta.

The World Health Organization in June said this variant has been associated with "substantive rates of community transmission, saying there is an increased prevalence of the variant in South American countries.

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante, a member of the Philippine government's vaccine experts panel, said the Lambda variant may affect the efficacy rate of antibody treatments and a person's reaction to them.

Where it stands

The country detected its first case of the Lambda variant on Aug. 15. Officials are determining if the 35-year-old patient is a local case or a Filipino who arrived from overseas, but she has already been tagged as recovered.

Are vaccines effective?

However, Solante said COVID-19 vaccines remain effective against all variants of concern and interest in preventing severe illness and death.

Theta variant

What it is

The Theta variant — believed to have a "unique set of mutations" — was first traced back to the Philippines in March. The World Health Organization in July downgraded and reclassified it as "alerts for further monitoring" since the reported cases of the P.3 variant have decreased.

Where it stands

There were over 340 cases of the Theta or P.3 variant in the country as of August.

This story will be updated as more information comes in.