As of the time this article was written, Philippine health authorities have detected no less than 114 infections of the COVID-19 Delta variant in the country. This particular strain, first detected in India last October 2020, is among the “variants of concern” identified by the World Health Organization (WHO), which are those that are more infectious, even to the point of infecting those who have been fully vaccinated.
With its increased transmissibility, the Delta variant poses a heightened threat to cripple entire healthcare systems with waves of new COVID-19 cases. The WHO projects that it will be the dominant strain “within months” after being detected in 124 countries as of mid-July 2021. This is already true in the United States where over 83 percent of the current infections sequenced are traced to this more contagious COVID-19 variant according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) head Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Data from the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) indicated that the Delta variant is, in fact, “gaining ground.” The United Kingdom detected 38,745 Delta variant cases, or equivalent to 96 percent of new infections sequenced last June 2021. In the same period, Portugal traced about 1,100 infections of the same variant or 72 percent of the total COVID-19 cases sequenced – the third highest country with the Delta variant in GISAID’s analysis of 80 states. India, Singapore, and Indonesia are also tracing more than 90 percent of its sequenced COVID-19 cases in the past four weeks to the highly transmissible variant.
Countries all over the world have responded to the variant by ramping up their vaccination programs, imposing travel restrictions and lockdowns, and tightening border controls, among other countermeasures.
Russia has gone as far as ordering the compulsory vaccination of 60 percent of its workers in the hospital sector and all public sector employees, even offering raffle prizes to the general population who choose to be vaccinated. Indonesia constructed an emergency hospital to cope with the surge in COVID patients and has ordered more oxygen, while Japan developed a new testing reagent just to detect the Delta variant.
In the Philippines, the government has already taken similar actions to curb the Delta variant and intensify our COVID-19 response. For one, a travel ban has been imposed on travelers coming from at least 10 countries (as of July 24) that are severely affected by the more contagious COVID-19 strain. There is also the re-imposition of stricter controls as Metro Manila has been placed under a General Community Quarantine (GCQ) with heightened restrictions and the reversion of the rule allowing kids outdoors.
The Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) are taking specific steps to prepare for a possible surge. The DOH started to stockpile oxygen and coordinate with local government units (LGU) to increase their inventory of the same, while the DTI has called on oxygen manufacturers to double production. Moreover, the Health department is also looking into conducting “purposive sampling,” or getting samples from areas with surges to determine the local transmission routes of the variant.
Related to the tracing and sampling efforts of the DOH on the Delta variant, I filed Proposed Senate Resolution (PSR) No. 759 to call for an inquiry on the current state of COVID-19 bio surveillance and genome sequencing to improve identification and classification of new variants. Filipino doctors and medical experts in the previous months expressed concern over the country’s current COVID-19 genome sequencing capacity. Apparently, only 750 samples are being evaluated per week, or less than one percent of the total recorded cases nationwide as against the ideal rate of five percent as recommended by the Philippine Genome Center (PGC).
Based on preliminary talks of our office with the DOH and the PGC, the top priority should be expanding genome sequencing capacity in regional hubs such as Cebu, Iloilo, and Davao to minimize transport of specimens and to encourage nearby provinces to send samples for sequencing. This would enable faster sequencing and shorter turnover time, allowing for bio surveillance findings to be communicated to LGUs and the public in a more timely manner.
In addition, it was mentioned by the agencies that genome sequencing capacity can be expanded through the provision of supplies and logistics (e.g. dry ice, boxes, transportation), biobanking (e.g. ultralow refrigerators), additional human resources and increased capacity on computing and analytical capacity for epidemiological analysis. The WHO underscored how rapid generation and sharing of virus genomic sequences are crucial to understanding the virus’ transmission routes and how these data can calibrate clinical and epidemiological mitigation strategies.
That being said, expanding and improving the country’s bio surveillance and genome sequencing capabilities should be prioritized and looked into jointly by the government and the public sector. Improvements in this area will safeguard the nation from future outbreaks and, more importantly, prevent the disruption in the livelihood and jobs of all Filipinos avoiding severe economic losses caused by widespread health crises.
Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 years. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.
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