Demand for transparency on new COVID-19 variant detection as Philippines detect first case

January 14, 2021 - 3:09 PM
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A man wearing a face mask and a face shield as protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) passes by a mural dedicated to frontline workers, in Manila, Philippines, January 11, 2021. (Reuters/Lisa Marie David)

Questions arose following the announcement that the new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus disease first detected in the United Kingdom is now in the Philippines.

The Department of Health and the Philippine Genome Center on Wednesday said that B-117 SARS-CoV-2 or the UK variant of the virus causing COVID-19 was detected from samples of a Filipino who arrived from the United Arab Emirates on January 7.

The patient is a 29-year-old male resident of Kamuning, Quezon City who departed for Dubai, UAE on Dec. 27, 2020 for a business trip. He was allowed to travel as he got a negative swab test.

When he returned to the country via Emirates airline with flight number EK 332, the patient was swabbed and quarantined in a hotel on the same day.

On January 8, the Filipino tested positive for COVID-19 and was referred to a quarantine facility in Quezon City.

His samples were also sent to PGC for whole genome sequencing to determine whether he is positive for the new variant that has been detected in other countries.

Three days later, the DOH released an advisory saying that it has not yet detected the new variant in the Philippines. This was in response to circulating social media posts that claimed the UK variant was already in the country.

RELATED: DOH quells social media posts about new COVID-19 variant detected in NCR

The DOH and PGC only confirmed the presence of the new COVID-19 variant on January 13.

While the government has imposed a travel ban on more than 30 nations in light of the new COVID-19 variant, it has not included UAE, which has reported “limited cases” of the new variant since December 29.

Filipinos coming from the countries with travel restrictions are also allowed to enter the country but they are mandated to undergo two-week quarantine regardless of their COVID-19 test result.

On Thursday, the DOH has recommended to include UAE in the list after a Filipino from the country has tested positive for the new COVID-19 variant.

The DOH subsequently said that it is conducting contract tracing efforts, especially involving the co-passengers of the man who tested positive for the new COVID-19 variant.

The health agency is asking the airline passengers to keep in touch with local contact tracing teams or Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams and cooperate with the surveillance and monitoring.

Meanwhile, the Quezon City government assured the public that the infected passenger’s close contacts have already been traced and isolated.

Concerns 

While the DOH announced the presence of the new COVID-19 variant with assurance that it will re-intensify its genomic biosurveillance with PGC, some Filipinos remain unconvinced of the agency’s transparency in reporting the case.

ABS-CBN data analyst Edson Guido noted the timeline involved with the announcement, which left some social media users concerned.

“Question, gaano katagal ang inaabot para makuha ang result for whole genome sequencing?” another Twitter user asked.

“It took 5 days bago pa nakapag-release ng statement,” the online user added.

Another Twitter user who also saw Guido’s post accused the health agency of supposedly keeping the issue a “secret.”

“I don’t understand why they can’t be transparent about this? Shouldn’t this be common sense? That we are safest when we know the facts in a public health emergency? What will they gain from keeping it a secret?” she asked.

A different online user alleged that the DOH could’ve found out about the new variant on January 11, the day it debunked social media claims about it.

“Baka nag-ready ng script. Baka Jan. 11 may result na hehehe galing,” he claimed.

BBC News Philippines correspondent Howard Johnson cited the case of the Filipino who was also detected positive for the new variant by Hong Kong health authorities last week.

“The news comes more than a week after Hong Kong health officials said they had detected the new variant in a Filipino passenger who had flown in from Manila on December 22nd,” he tweeted in response to DOH confirming the new variant in the Philippines.

Last January 6, Hong Kong health authorities reported that one of the four individuals who tested positive for the new COVID-19 variant was a resident who came from the Philippines.

She was tagged as case 9003 and arrived in Hong Kong via Philippine Airlines flight PR 300 on December 22.

At that time, the Philippines has not yet detected the new variant in the country.

RELATED: Hong Kong’s detection of new COVID-19 variant in passenger from Manila sparks safety, credibility concerns

As of Thursday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that the Filipino from Hong Kong is currently in stable condition. Her close contacts have also tested negative for the new COVID-19 variant.

Vergeire added there was only one person whose sample yielded positive for the new COVID-19 variant from among more than 500 viral samples collected so far, which was the Filipino who arrived from Dubai.

Last week, PGC said that it has not detected any of the variant from UK and South Africa on the 305 local samples it has processed from January 2 to 5.