Concerned Filipinos once again raised the absence of the country’s chief public authority on health after a new Omicron subvariant and another variant was detected in the Philippines.
The Department of Health on Tuesday announced that 81 cases of Omicron XBB were detected in two regions while 193 cases of the XBC variant were present in 11 regions.
Of the XBB subvariant, the agency said that 70 have already recovered while eight are still undergoing isolation. The outcomes of the three remaining cases are still being verified.
Acting health secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said they were detected in the Western Visayas and Davao Region.
Of the XBC variant, 176 have recovered while three are still undergoing isolation. Five have also died while the outcome of the remaining nine cases is still being verified.
Vergeire said they were detected in Cagayan Valley, Western Visayas, Central Visayas, Davao Region, Soccsksargen, Calabarzon, Mimaropa, Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Caraga, Cordillera Administrative Region, and the National Capital Region.
The DOH said that the XBB subvariant is the “primary cause” of the new COVID-19 spikes in Singapore, a neighboring country.
It added that the Singaporean Ministry of Health (MOH) said there is no sufficient evidence that the particular subvariant causes more severe illness.
“So far, the large majority of patients continue to report mild symptoms such as sore throat or slight fever, especially if they have been vaccinated,” the MOH reportedly said in a statement.
The DOH also cited the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which said there is currently no sufficient evidence suggesting the XBB subvariant is different in severity and symptoms than the original Omicron variant.
Meanwhile, the XBC variant is said to be a recombinant of the Delta variant and the Omicron BA.2 subvariant.
The DOH said it is under monitoring and investigation as classified by the United Kingdom Health Security Agency, although the World Health Organization has yet to determine its risk.
Vergeire said that the newly-detected subvariant and variant are more transmissible than the original Omicron variant.
For American infectious disease specialist William Schaffner, the XBB subvariant seems to be able to evade immunity that people have built from having a past infection or getting vaccinated.
A report cited a pre-print study from China which said that Omicron XBB is thought to have the best ability to evade antibodies, describing it as “far exceeding BA.5 and approaching SARS-CoV-1 level.”
SARS-CoV-1 is the strain of the coronavirus that causes SARS, a respiratory virus that caused severe illness from 2002 to 2004.
The new Omicron subvariant and the XBC variant are detected as the country continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic without an official health secretary.
This was noticed by some Filipinos who recalled the vacant seat of the crucial Cabinet-level position.
“At wala pa ring health secretary,” a Twitter user said in response to reports of the detections.
“Pero Health Secretary wala pa din,” another Pinoy observed.
“Tapos wala pa din [DOH] secretary,” a different Twitter user said.
“New subvariant natagpuang [bida-bida], nauna ka pa sa [DOH] secretary,” tweeted another Pinoy.
Vergeire, health undersecretary, currently acts as the officer-in-charge of the DOH.
She was assigned last July and is supposed to hold the position until July 31 or until a health secretary is formally appointed by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Meanwhile, the DOH post remains vacant despite the country dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and monkeypox.
When Marcos reached his 100 days in office, similar questions about the vacancy were raised online.
“Wala pa rin siyang DOH secretary? 100 Days na,” a Twitter user asked before.
The gunman in the Ateneo de Manila University shooting last July was rumored to head the health agency before.
Marcos previously said that the DOH “is not about COVID alone” in response to questions about the vacancy.
“It’s about public health in general, so that’s another side of it. And it’s as important as COVID is,” he added.
Marcos said that “there are many other elements to the DOH” and that the government has to keep functioning “until we finalize the structure.”
“We have the dengue rates are (sic) climbing. We have the second highest HIV rate of infection in the world,” he added.
“The consultants that are helping us, putting the new structure of the DOH together, diyan manggagaling ‘yung ating bagong secretary,” Marcos continued.