No UK variant in PH

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    THERE remains no identified United Kingdom (UK) variant of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) and the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) assured the public yesterday.

    Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the UK variant (B.1.1.7) of the COVID-19 virus has not yet been detected in the country.

    “Based on the lineage analysis through whole genome sequencing done by the PGC, the UK variant was not detected in any of the 305 positive samples submitted to them,” said Vergeire in a virtual press conference.

    Vergeire noted that all the 305 samples analyzed by PGC were composed of positive samples from November-December hospital admissions, as well as those from inbound travelers who tested positive upon arrival at the airport.

    PGC executive director Cynthia Saloma said even the South African variant was not found among the samples subjected to genome sequencing.

    “What was the most frequent mutations observed in the local samples analyzed (were) D614G (264 consensus sequences) and S12F (103 consensus sequences),” said Saloma.

    The said variants, she added, were the same strains that caused the spike in COVID-19 cases back in the middle of 2020.

    Saloma, though, stressed that they will not stop conducting genome sequencing as part of the government’s efforts to prevent its spread in the country.

    “This genomic bio-surveillance we are doing together with our partner institutions will be continuous,” she said.

    According to the DOH, considered as the official detection of the variant in a country are those published in the respective government’s official channels, or from official notification of a country to the International Health Regulations.

    “Unofficial reports, including those reported by media outlets, do not qualify as official sources and, therefore, cannot be used as basis in recommending travel restrictions from a specific country,” assured Vergeire.

    TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

    Yesterday, the Office of the President, upon the joint recommendation of the DOH and the Department of Foreign Affairs, included Portugal, India, Finland, Norway, Jordan, and Brazil as among the countries subject to travel restrictions.

    The OP said foreign passengers coming from or who have been to the six countries within 14 days immediately preceding their arrival in the Philippines will be prohibited from entering the country effective 12:01 a.m. of January 8 until January 15, 2021.

    On the other hand, foreign passengers coming from, or who have been to the six countries within 14 days before arriving in the Philippines on January 8, shall be allowed to enter the Philippines. However, they will be required to undergo an absolute facility-based 14-day quarantine period, even if they obtain a negative RT-PCR test result.

    Likewise, Filipino citizens coming from, or who have been to the six additional countries within 14 days immediately preceding their arrival in the Philippines, including those arriving after January 8, will be allowed to enter the Philippines. However, they shall be required to undergo an absolute facility-based 14-day quarantine period, even if they obtain a negative RT-PCR test result.

    The OP said incoming unaccompanied minor Filipino passengers coming from the countries where travel restrictions are in place shall not be allowed entry until January 15, except minors returning through the repatriation program of the national government. These repatriated minors shall be turned over to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, which, in coordination with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), shall ensure the minors’ safety and their observance of quarantine protocols.

    It also said that all unaccompanied minor Filipino citizens who are not part of the repatriation program of the national government arriving before January 8 shall be turned over to an authorized DSWD officer who can ensure the minors’ safety and their observance to quarantine protocols.

    HK CASE FROM PH

    In a related development, the DOH said it has already started contact tracing efforts relative to the case of a Hong Kong patient who tested positive for the COVID-19 UK variant following travel from the Philippines.

    According to Vergeire, they were able to acquire the flight manifest of Philippine Airlines for flight PR300, which brought the traveler to Hong Kong in December 22.

    “We were able to zero in on two passengers of the flight that matched the profile of 30-year old female with unknown nationality,” said Vergeire.

    She said they have already tried contacting the 38 co-passengers but is still unsuccessful.
    Additionally, Vergeire said they are trying to contact the Ministry of Health of Hong Kong to get additional details but has yet to get a response.

    Vergeire said they are also in close coordination with Hong Kong’s International Health Regulations focal point to secure official notification and other pertinent information.

    PAL management said the patient, whose identity was withheld, presented a negative COVID test before taking the Manila to Hong Kong flight last December 22.

    On Tuesday, Hong Kong health officials reported that they detected the new COVID-19 variant in a passenger, who arrived from Manila.

    TWG FORMED

    Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the IATF has formed a technical working group to be co-chaired by Health Undersecretary Ma. Rosario Vergeire and Philippine Council for Health Research and Development executive director Jaime Montoya to do research on the new COVID virus variants that have been reported in other countries.

    Roque said the group will also come up with more appropriate policies in addressing the new variants.

    He said the Technical Working Group (TWG) on COVID-19 Variants, formed on the orders of President Duterte, shall include Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, Dr. Marissa Alejandria, and Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana of the DOH Technical Advisory Group; Dr. Celia Carlos, director of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine; Dr. Eva Maria Cutiongco-Dela Paz, executive director of the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health; Dr. Cynthia Saloma, executive director of the University of the Philippines – Philippine Genome Center; and Dr. John Wong, president of EpiMetrics who is also an epidemiologist and data analytics adviser for the IATF.

    “This Technical Working Group will monitor and identify the occurrence of new variants of COVID-19 in the country and will provide policy recommendations to the IATF on the appropriate response regarding these variants,” Roque said. – With Jocelyn Montemayor