Word of caution

Word of caution

As of yesterday, two of 31 swab samples taken in Central Visayas contained two COVID “mutations of concern,” according to the Philippine Genome Center. Meanwhile, in Metro Manila, a female resident of Pasay City has been confirmed to have the COVID variant first detected in the United Kingdom. She has been linked to an infection cluster in the Metro Rail Transit 3 where her child works.

The UK variant, now spreading around the globe, is more infectious although no deadlier than the original, according to epidemiologists. But the variant, together with a more virulent mutation first detected in South Africa, is feared to weaken the efficacy of the COVID vaccines now available.

Epidemiologists have long warned that viruses tend to mutate, with the strains either more virulent or weaker. They have said a coronavirus mutation unique to the Philippines could also crop up. Their reassurance is that vaccines developed for the original strains typically also work on the variants.

With the vaccination in the country stalled, however, and variants of the COVID-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus now detected in the two most populated regions in the country, the World Health Organization is warning against the easing of restrictions in the Philippines. The WHO issued the statement as economic managers pushed for a nationwide shift to the most lenient modified general community quarantine or MGCQ by March 1.

Metro Manila mayors are almost evenly split on the issue, with nine out of eight in favor. The Department of Health in Central Visayas wants a two-week observation period for the mutations of concern. A similar suggestion has been given by the OCTA Research Group, which has been tracking COVID transmission nationwide since the start of the pandemic. OCTA points out that the shift to MGCQ must meet criteria set out for public health safety instead of a timeline.

Those opposing the shift to MGCQ at this time warn that countries where the variants have emerged have been forced to resort to strict lockdowns to contain the rapid transmission. In recent weeks, there has been an increase in infections in eight cities in the National Capital Region and in three regions outside the NCR.

The government has expressed confidence that vaccination will be underway within the first quarter of the year. With the WHO itself warning of a possible COVID surge, it would be prudent to wait at least two more weeks before further economic reopening, to observe the behavior of the variants. It would be a shame to waste a year of sacrifices.