Return of in-person classes on hold due to virus mutation concerns
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte canceled limited in-person classes, which were supposed to be pilot-tested in January, amid rising concerns over the new coronavirus variant that was first reported in the United Kingdom early this month and is feared to be more infectious than the earlier form.
Duterte announced his decision on Saturday during a meeting with health experts and members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Like others present at the meeting, Duterte wore a face mask and face shield, but he later removed his for the rest of the meeting because he said he found it difficult to speak.
In-person classes were supposed to be held from Jan. 11 to Jan. 23 in areas with low COVID-19 incidence, as part of the easing of quarantine restrictions nine months after the government put much of the country on lockdown. The list of schools where such classes can resume was supposed to be announced on Dec. 28.
“I’m calling back the order and I will not allow face-to-face classes for children until we are through with this,” Duterte said. “That would be a disaster, actually, so mindful of that, I am canceling the order I gave a few weeks ago to [Education] Secretary [Leonor] Briones.”
But at an online forum held by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday, experts agreed that newly developed COVID-19 vaccines already being rolled out worldwide could work just as well on the coronavirus variant.
“We have no evidence that this virus is behaving differently immunologically in the population,” Judith Breuer, professor of virology at University College London, told the forum.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative at the UK Wellcome Sanger Institute, and WHO Senior Laboratory Expert Frank Konings expressed the same opinion.
“Mutations always sound so scary and [can] cause a lot of panic. But, actually, for the virus itself, it is quite normal. Viruses replicate or make copies of themselves,” said Konings, adding that they “always change a bit.”
“They make a lot of errors, just like a typo when you write a letter. And these errors are called mutations. And the virus with a mutation is called a variant,” he said.
This led Breuer to conclude that “vaccines will work just as well.”
She also said there was currently no sign of reinfection among those who had been administered the vaccine.
Barrett emphasized that “the important thing [is] to keep in mind that even though the virus has changed, it’s still led by SARS-CoV-2, and the existing measures and interventions still work and should be implemented.”
In Manila, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III sought to assure the public that “no case from the new variant has been recorded in the Philippines.”
Duque made this assertion even as he confirmed that one of 79 arrivals from the United Kingdom has tested positive for COVID-19, while 23 others await test results.
Duterte, in his meeting on Saturday, said the government should work on the assumption that the new variant may enter the country.
“We should not be complacent about it. We should treat it as a deadly disease that could be entering the Philippines,” he said.
He added “we are making some projections but if the severity in numbers demand that we take corrective measures immediately, then we just have to go back to the lockdown.”
Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez Jr. of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 said there should be a threshold to determine when a lockdown should be imposed.
According to the WHO, 12 countries in the Western Pacific region have recorded cases from the United Kingdom, with Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan having recorded cases of the new variant.
The government has extended the ban on arrivals from the United Kingdom, originally until Dec. 31, for two more weeks.
Virus case update
The Department of Health reported 1,406 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, bringing the total number in the country to 469,005.
There have been 266 new recoveries, bringing total recoveries to 431,055.
Five deaths have been recorded, bringing the total death toll to 9,067.
Bulacan had the most number of new infections at 100, followed by Quezon City (98), Rizal (88), Laguna (73) and Batangas (69).
Of the 28,883 active cases disclosed on Saturday, 82.5 percent are mild, 9.9 percent are asymptomatic, 0.32 percent are moderate, 2.5 percent are severe and 4.8 percent are critical. —WITH A REPORT FROM PATRICIA DENISE M. CHIU INQ
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