The Philippines is keeping a close watch on the Omicron subvariant which could possibly be more transmissible than its parent lineage, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said Monday.
In a televised briefing, Duque assured the public that the government’s epidemiology bureau is coordinating with the World Health Organization (WHO) to monitor developments.
“The WHO’s country office has been giving us the latest information on the characteristics of this subvariant,” he said.
Dubbed BA.2, the newly-detected Covid-19 derivative has been detected in at least 40 countries, particularly in Europe.
It emerged from a mutation of Omicron, officially known as BA.1.
Other sublineages of Omicron like BA.3 or BB.2 have been reported across the globe, but they have attracted less attention from epidemiologists because of the dramatic increase in cases of people who have been infected with BA.2.
Also known as “stealth Omicron,” BA.2 has additional 20 mutations, about half of them in the spike protein.
Experts have long said that having more mutations makes a virus spread relatively quickly.
At press time, the World Health Organization has yet to distinguish the Omicron and its BA.2 mutation as details on the latter remain scarce.
Duque, speaking at a news conference, noted that further studies are needed on the Omicron subvariant does not seem to have many differences from its parent lineage but appears to be more contagious.
“So far, limited data shows that it’s not that different from the Omicron variant. If there’s any, it might be faster in transmission,” he said.
Scientists around the world have admitted that it remains early to say whether BA.2 is more infectious than that of the BA.1.
Limited data on Denmark and India suggest that BA.2-stricken individuals experience almost the same symptoms as those with the primary strain of Omicron.
“Very early observations from India and Denmark suggest there is no dramatic difference in severity compared to BA.1,” tweeted Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College in London.
Meanwhile, there appears to be a consensus among the medical community that the detection of the subvariant should not call into question the effectiveness of existing Covid-19 jabs.
“Vaccines continue to be effective against severe critical cases, therefore, preventing hospitalizations and deaths,” said Duque.
Peacock of the Imperial College in London also said that there could be “minimal differences
in vaccine effectiveness against BA.1 and BA.2.
“Personally, I’m not sure BA.2 is going to have a substantial impact on the current Omicron wave of the pandemic,” he added.
The Philippine Genome Center is capable of detecting the Omicron subvariant, according to the Department of Health.
At present, no BA.2 infection has been reported yet in the country. The Delta variant is believed to be the most dominant Covid-19 virus type in the Philippines, but experts have said that Omicron may easily overtake the former due to its high transmissibility.
Amid the continuous increase in coronavirus infections, Duque reminded the public that aside from vaccines, minimum public health standards like mask wearing should be observed to contain virus spread.
“Let us mimic other countries which lifted the mask mandate and eased up restrictions because cases may jump again,” he added.
Authorities have so far detected 3.41 million coronavirus infections, of which over 270,000 cases remain active.