The Philippines has announced that a new COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa has reached the country, with at least six new cases reported, as the government began its delayed vaccination programme using Sinovac shots donated by China.
At least three of the detected new variants, known as B1351, were discovered in Metro Manila, while two were among Filipinos returning from abroad, the health department said on Tuesday. Officials are still verifying the origin of the sixth case.
The cases were detected from a batch of more than 300 samples being examined by the Philippine Genome Center, the statement added.
The B1351 variant first emerged in October 2020 in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. It has now been found in at least 32 countries, including Mozambique, Kenya and Botswana.
According to the World Health Organization, preliminary studies suggest the B1351 variant is associated with “a higher viral load”, suggesting “potential for increased transmissibility”.
However, the UN body said that there was “no clear evidence” of the COVID-19 variant being associated with more severe disease or worse outcomes.
News of the B1351 variant came just a day after the government began the Philippines vaccination programme using 600,000 shots donated by China.
It remains unknown how effective Sinovac, which has been tested in countries including Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia, will be against the new variant.
Health Under-Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, the department spokesman, said on Tuesday that Sinovac had not yet released any study about its efficacy against the new strain.
Details of the Sinovac trials have not yet been made public by the Philippine government, citing confidentiality, which has raised concern among health watchdogs and healthcare workers.
On Monday, Dr Gerardo Legaspi, director of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) in Manila, was the first to be officially administered the Sinovac vaccine.
Dr Legaspi was given the jab despite an earlier statement by the country’s Food and Drug Administration that the Sinovac shot was not recommended for healthcare workers directly involved with COVID-19 patients, or people of 65 years old or more.
As the vaccines were administered to several officials on Monday, other healthcare workers staged a demonstration outside the Philippine Lung Center to demand more transparency about the Sinovac shots, as well as more choices on vaccine brands.
In a statement on Monday, the Philippine Medical Students’ Association said that there was “no public health, without public trust.”
The roll-out of the vaccine in the Philippines has been rife with controversy after it was revealed that members of President Rodrigo Duterte’s security detail were vaccinated with Sinopharm shots smuggled from China as early as October of last year.
Last Wednesday, a special envoy from Duterte to China revealed that he and several government officials also received the same shots from China last year, and that the president had made a verbal request for vaccine samples for himself and his family.
To date, Sinopharm has not applied for or been issued with an emergency use authorisation in the Philippines, making the use of the vaccine in the country illegal.
READ | Statement of the Philippine Medical Students’ Association on the use of the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine for healthcare workers.
— JC Cosico (@JCCosico) March 1, 2021
The Philippines has also reported cases of the B117 COVID variant that was first detected in the United Kingdom.
On Tuesday, the health department reported at least 30 additional cases of the B117 variant, bringing the total number of cases involving the strain to 87.
Most of the cases of the B117 variant were found among Filipino workers returning from the Middle East, Singapore and the United States.
Another two samples from central Philippines were reportedly linked to the COVID-19’s N501Y and E484K mutations.
The Philippines has confirmed more than 578,000 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. More than 12,000 people have died from the disease.