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 agency is coordinating with the World Health Organization (WHO) in monitoring the 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 sub-lineages 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 WHO 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 show 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 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,” Duque said.
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 (DoH).
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.
This comes as the DoH on Monday claimed that the surge in the number of daily Covid-19 cases in the National Capital Region (NCR) has reached its peak.
“It seems like it has peaked already as we’ve been seeing a continuous decline in Covid-19 cases in NCR. Its percentage in the total caseload is also getting smaller,” Duque said.
Duque added that NCR can revert to Alert Level 2 should it meet the criteria set by the government such as a moderate-risk or 0 to 200 percent growth rate within 2 weeks, an average daily attack rate of one to seven cases per 100,000 population.
Metro Manila should also achieve a 49 percent and below healthcare utilization rate before it can de-escalate to a lower alert level.
“If the NCR will be able to meet the criteria, it is automatic. we will go down to Alert Level 2,” according to the official.
Based on the case bulletin on 24 January, the capital region’s intensive care unit beds occupancy rate is at 47 percent, isolation beds at 42 percent, and ventilator machines are at 27 percent.
Also on Monday, a total of 24,938 new infections have been added to the country’s total caseload which is now at 3,442,056, according to the DoH.
Of the total case count, 262,997 are active cases, of which 250,235 are mild, 7,944 are asymptomatic, 3,010 with moderate symptoms, 1,499 have severe symptoms, while 309 are in critical condition.
with Jomelle Garner