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UK Variant Traced in Dec. 10 Swab Test, Here's Why it Matters

Virus surveillance guides response, vaccine development.
Jan 23, 2021
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The UK variant of COVID-19 was detected from one of 16 newly confirmed cases who was tested on Dec. 10, four days before Britain confirmed its existence to the world, officials said Saturday, underscoring the need to monitor how the virus is mutating.

The U.K. confirmed the existence of the B.1.1.7. variant on Dec. 14. Officials said the Filipino, a 23-year-old man from Calamba, Laguna, could have caught the virus variant before it was named. The man finished his isolation.

How did this happen? Since the Philippines confirmed its first case of the UK variant last Jan. 13, it started screening COVID-19 positive results for the presence of the UK variant. Back tests were done on some samples from October, November and December.

The man from Calamba is one of 16 UK variant cases that were confirmed late Friday, bringing the total to 17. The first case was a man who returned to the country after a business trip in Dubai.

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Twelve of the 16 are from Bontoc, Mt. Province, one from La Trinidad, Benguet and two others who returned to the Philippines on Dec. 29 from Lebanon. 

Data showed a 203% spike in cases in Bontoc, the cause of which is being investigated. One of the possible reasons is a post-Christmas surge.

ALSO READ:

UK Virus Variant Detected in 16 More COVID Cases, Says Health Dept 

Close Contacts of First Philippine COVID Variant Case Test Positive Too

Why this matters

Britain confirmed the so-called UK variant on Dec. 14, using a catalog of positive cases from as far back as September, said Dr. Edsel Salvana, who is involved in local efforts to detect the virus variant. The process is called genome sequencing.

"Mukhang hindi naman widespread kasi hindi naman nahanap sa ibang cases," he said.

The 12 UK variant cases in Bontoc are from a single cluster of infections and are unrelated to the others that were recently confirmed, he said.

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Salvana said detecting the presence of new variants, called biosurveillance is key to preventing a surge in infections, like what happened in mid 2020. "Ngayon, alam natin at mamomonitor natin importantly ang pagpasok ng ganitong bagay."

Understanding the mutations or variants of the virus will help biotech firms make vaccines more effective, they said.

"There should be no delay, otherwise, we will be in the same situation as the United Kingdom. We cannot stop tracking what happens to this virus," said Dr. Celia Carlos, head of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine.

"We should keep our cases low to prevent mutation," said epidemiologist John Wong. "Avoid crowds, avoid closed venues, improve ventilation and avoid places where a lot of people are talking without masks."

ALSO READ:

The New COVID Variant Is Here, How Can You Keep Safe?

COVID Patients to Get Tested for New Virus Variant, Says Palace

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What government is doing

Health Secretary Francisco Duque called on the public to continue observing minimum health standards. He said government had long been preparing for a possible surge, especially after the Christmas holidays.

A surge is the result of the "interplay of many other factors," not just new virus variants. "Talagang madaming pasaway, hindi sumusunod sa mga tamang pagusot ng mga face mask face shield, physical distancing."

Duque said he checked the readiness of the Lung Center of the Philippines and Quezon Institute in case of a surge. He said he also asked the isolation czar, Public Works Sec Mark Villar, to increase available isolation facilities.

International arrivals will be required to have a second RT-PCR test five days from arrival. Contact tracing will include third generation contacts and local government units will ensure strict enforcement of 14-day quarantine.

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