It is too early to say if there is already a community transmission of the more transmissible variant of the COVID-19 virus in the country, health authorities said Saturday.
This was emphasized by Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) Director Dr. Celia Carlos following the detection of 16 more cases of the B.1.1.7 or the United Kingdom variant of the novel coronavirus in the Philippines.
“Considering that investigation is ongoing, it may be premature for us now to determine whether there is ongoing community transmission. We need to wait for the results of the investigation,” said Carlos during a press briefing hosted by the Department of Health (DoH).
According to Carlos, the World Health Organization (WHO) has “three definitions” to establish if there is already a community transmission.
“First, large number of cases which are not linkable through transmission chains. No. 2, large number of cases from sentinel sites if there is existing surveillance, and No. 3, multiple unrelated-clusters in several areas of the country,” she said.
This notion was seconded by Dr. Edsel Salvana, a member of the DoH Technical Advisory Group.
“Right now there is no evidence of community transmission but it does not mean that it’s not there but we will continue to look,” he said.
“Right now, there’s no evidence of that dahil meron po tayong isang cluster lang na alam po natin na magkaka-related sila (because we only have one cluster that we know are all related),” he added.
Last Friday night, the DoH announced 16 new cases of the UK variant of COVID-19 virus in the country, pushing the total to 17. Of the new cases, 12 were detected in Bontoc, Mountain Province; two returning overseas Filipinos from Lebanon; while the two others were detected in La Trinidad, Benguet and Calamba, Laguna. The first case was a resident of Quezon City who had a travel history from Dubai.
Dr. Althea de Guzman of the DoH Epidemiology Bureau said that authorities are still investigating how the 12 residents of Mountain Province as well as the two cases from Benguet and Laguna got the infection.
Meanwhile, Philippine health experts said that it is still early to conclude that the UK variant of COVID-19 is deadlier.
Salvana said that the data “from the UK about the potentially increased deadliness of the virus is very preliminary.”
“Pinag-aaralan pa po ito. Hindi pa final. Very very preliminary ang mga sinabi po ng UK (It is still being studied. Not yet final. What the UK has said is very very preliminary),” he said.
This was also agreed by Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (PSMID) President Dr. Marissa Alejandria, saying that “the study is still very premature. There’s still uncertainty on whether the virus is really more deadly.”
According to a BBC report, “early evidence” suggested that this variant of COVID-19 virus “may be more deadly,” quoting UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Alejandria said that “it is possible that there is a higher mortality rate in this variant but cannot directly say that it is really just due to the virus or the variant.”
“When we talk about factors affecting mortality it is not just about the virus. It is also about the characteristics of the patient as mentioned: The older you are, the higher the risk of dying; the presence of comorbid conditions…immunocompromised condition, there is a higher chance that they may develop severe illness regardless of whether you have the variant or not,” she said.
Another scenario would be is when the healthcare system is already overwhelmed.
“Kung mas transmissible ang isang variant, mas maraming cases, mas ma-stretch po ‘yung ating healthcare system. So in general, puwedeng mangyari is pag puno po ‘yung mga ospital mas maraming mamamatay kasi ‘yung iba hindi naaalagaan (The more transmissible a variant is, the more cases will be, therefore, the healthcare system can be stretched. So in general, it can happen when the hospitals are full – more people will die because the others are not taken care of),” said Salvana.
Health experts urged the public to continue practicing minimum public health standards. Local government units were also urged to strengthen their contact tracing initiatives and strictly enforce health protocols to avoid the surge in cases.