Authorities fear the new coronavirus vaccines, particularly those developed by British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca, would be ineffective for the more contagious Covid-19 variant now spreading in key cities nationwide.
The variant first detected in South Africa, according to distinguished molecular-biologist and a fellow of OCTA Research Fr. Nicanor Austriaco O.P., could now be tagged as “SuperCovid” since the more contagious virus type reportedly weakens vaccine efficacy and causes a “dramatic” surge of infections.
Austriaco on Wednesday expressed concern that the national Covid-19 vaccination drive has been “hit in the stomach” after the so-called “SuperCovid” variant from South Africa was detected in Pasay City.
He noted that studies have shown that the variant decreases the efficacy rate of AstraZeneca’s vaccine from 70 percent to 10 percent. AstraZeneca’s 487,700 doses are expected to arrive Thursday evening.
“Our national vaccine strategy that has just begun (but) we have already been hit in the stomach by a variant… that if uncontrolled and not eliminated from the islands, will severely impact (our vaccination campaign),” Austriaco told reporters in a news conference.
“If we do not eliminate the B.1.351 variant identified in Pasay, the 17 million doses of AstraZeneca that we have already bought and have not yet arrived will be ineffective in fighting this particular variant from South Africa,” he said.
Austriaco cited a study published in February that the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccine “dramatically decreased” from 70 percent to 10 percent in protecting an individual from the South Africa variant.
“Basically, South Africa decided to abandon the AstraZeneca vaccine because it’s no different than injecting water into the patients,” he said.
“Because with 10 percent protection to the patients, most people would still be able to get mild to moderate Covid-19, so this is a cause of concern,” Austriaco added.
He also said an additional bolster shot of AstraZeneca is needed to fight off the “SuperCovid” variant in South Africa.
It means a person will need three doses of AstraZeneca vaccine instead of the usual two doses.
The private sector and local government units have procured 17 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine from the British-Swedish firm.
Apart from the 487,700 doses of AstraZeneca arriving Thursday through the World Health Organization (WHO)-led COVAX Facility, the Philippines is also expecting 3.5 million shots manufactured by the firm.
The WHO’s strategic advisory group of experts on immunization currently recommends the use of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine dubbed as AZD1222, even in countries with new virus variants.
“Preliminary findings highlight the urgent need for a coordinated approach for surveillance and evaluation of variants and their potential impact on vaccine effectiveness. As new data become available, WHO will update recommendations accordingly,” the organization said.
Forty-nine countries have so far reported cases of the B.1351 variant, including the Philippines.
Blamed for virus surge
The South African variant, apart from its mutation which affects vaccine efficacy, is also alarming because it is 50 percent more contagious than other dominant variants, Austriaco said.
OCTA Research Group’s Guido David, in the same press conference, said the Pasay City and Makati in the National Capital Region (NCR) are seeing a sharp two-week rise in coronavirus infections.
Pasay City, which recorded three cases of South Africa variant, saw a 91-percent jump of coronavirus infection from 17 to 23 February to last week’s figures, he said.
Meanwhile, Makati saw a 79-percent jump; Quezon City observed a 58-percent rise; and Manila detected a 32-percent increase.
“One area of our concern is that the ongoing surge in Pasay City and the NCR have the hallmarks of a variant-driven surge,” Austriaco said.
“The pattern appears to be that whenever we see a surge, the surge is driven by a particular variant that is introduced in the country,” he added.
The Department of Health (DoH) has earlier said it is studying whether the more transmissible South African variant is linked to the spike in Covid-19 cases in Pasay City.
While the variants are more transmissible, the department said other factors such as poor compliance to health protocols and inter-zonal mobility also cause the spread of Covid-19.
“The probability is always there because there are variants detected and the cases are rising, but we need to do a thorough analysis for us to be able to really confirm and say that the variants are the cause of this increase in cases,” DoH spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a briefing on Tuesday.
Apart from the three cases of South Africa variant or B.1.351 in Pasay City, the DoH also detected two cases among returning overseas Filipinos. Another case is undergoing verification.
In a statement, OCTA Research also predicted that the number of Covid-19 cases in Metro Manila could rise by 45,000 by the end of March to 280,000 cases from the current number of 234,754.
The group blamed the rapid spread of the UK B117 Covid variant for the number of fatalities rising by about 990 cases, “unless everyone especially the national and local governments and health authorities work together in ensuring the spread of the disease is curbed”.
It recommended that health care workers get themselves inoculated with any vaccine available to boost their immunity from the Covid-19 virus, especially with the discovery of the South African variant.