Extra vigilance necessary
The government has imposed travel restrictions on more than 30 countries after the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 was detected in the country this week. The new variant, while not more lethal, is believed to be 50-70 percent more infectious.
A Filipino male who arrived from the United Arab Emirates last Jan. 7 yielded positive genome sequencing results of the UK variant, according to the Department of Health (DOH). Contact tracing of the other passengers of the flight from Dubai as well as those who had initial contact with the patient has been conducted, and none has been infected so far, assured the DOH.
But experts also say this new variant should even be more reason to spur the government to improve its uninspired drive against the deadly coronavirus, which has infected almost 500,000 in the Philippines. The UK variant, known as B117, is said to be more contagious and easily transmissible because it increases the viral load inside a person’s respiratory tract so it spreads more easily when people talk or cough. And though early studies show that it is not as virulent, it is easier to transmit and catch, which could strain the country’s already fragile health care system. Health experts warn that coronavirus cases could see as much as a 15-fold increase, even as the DOH said that only 31 percent of hospital beds in the country have been occupied as of the first week of January.
Aside from B117, other more contagious variants have been detected in Brazil and South Africa and are already circulating in the United States, which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases worldwide. Reports said the Brazil variant shares similarities with the highly infectious variants from the UK and South Africa, and was first detected in four people who had traveled from Amazonas to Tokyo earlier this month.
Early data from a study conducted by the University of Texas Medical Branch did show promising signs that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine may protect against the new variants. Pfizer is the only COVID-19 vaccine that has so far been given emergency use authorization (EUA) approval by Philippine regulators. In Thursday’s Senate investigation on the government’s COVID-19 vaccination program, Sen. Grace Poe urged the government to prioritize negotiations with Pfizer at this time over deals with other manufacturers whose products have yet to get an approval from the FDA.
The Duterte administration, on other other hand, is seemingly bent on acquiring 25 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine even if, as former health adviser to the government Dr. Tony Leachon pointed out in a tweet on Jan. 15, Sinovac is hounded by the following issues: 1) Unfinished clinical trials with variable results of efficacy rate; 2) No EUA in the United States, European Union, and in the Philippines; 3) More costly than the vaccines approved in established markets.
Ignoring what appears to be the national government’s preference for Sinovac, a number of local governments, including Makati, Manila, and Quezon City, have instead signed deals with British-Swedish AstraZeneca. Even Davao City, headed by presidential daughter Sara Duterte, announced it was talking to AstraZeneca. Leachon reminded authorities in another tweet on Jan. 13: “With the new variant here in the Philippines, perhaps the government will realize why we need quality and high efficacy vaccines—no brainer!”
As Filipinos wait for the national government to sort out its vaccine issues, experts said health protocols that were established to protect the public from COVID-19 should all the more continue. Even though the new variant has the potential to spread more quickly, “transmission is still largely dependent on how individuals protect themselves through social distancing and mask wearing,” noted the University of California San Francisco in an article, which also quoted the advice of UC San Francisco infectious disease expert Charles Chiu: “The virus is already very infectious at baseline, so I think the effectiveness of the public health response and individual responsibility to prevent spread has much more impact than a small degree of increased transmissibility. The important thing is not necessarily to focus on the variants, but to focus on the virus overall—limiting the number of cases by controlling transmission and deploying the vaccine so that we can reach herd immunity.”
In other words, continuing vigilance, or even more of it, is necessary. The public must continue to observe physical distancing and wear the proper masks (experts recommend surgical masks). As for the government, the least it is expected to do is to ensure that it distributes the best vaccine it could get for the people instead of one arrived at through partisan, erratic decision-making, and to finally get its act together.
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