DOH needs more data on impact of 2 ‘mutations of concern’
The Department of Health (DOH) on Friday confirmed that two “mutations of concern” had been detected in the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in 31 cases in Central Visayas.
The DOH, however, clarified that the available data was “insufficient to conclude” that these mutations would have significant implications on public health.
But the mutations, identified as E484K and N501Y, are still “potentially clinically significant,” the DOH said on Thursday night after they were first disclosed to the public.
According to Dr. Cynthia Saloma, executive director of the Philippine Genome Center (PGC), the E484K mutation is also found in the South African variant while the N501Y is in the UK variant.
A mutation is any change in the DNA or RNA sequence of a virus. A variant is a specific group of mutations that causes a virus to behave differently from the strain it had originated from, she said.
Viruses undergo mutations as they spread. These changes are detected through a process called genome sequencing, which tracks the genome, or genetic material, of the virus over time.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Friday said experts were continuing their study of the two mutations.
“At present the data we have is not yet sufficient for our experts to say what, if any, the implications of these mutations are,” he said.
Saloma said the 31 patients who had the two mutations presented only mild symptoms and had completed their quarantine.
DOH Central Visayas Director Jaime Bernadas said all 31 had recovered, including two who were asymptomatic.
“I presume everyone is already in their homes,” he said.
The 31 with the two mutations were from 70 samples obtained in the region and sent to the PGC for genome sequencing on Feb. 6. Of the 70 samples, only 59 met the criteria for sequencing, Saloma said.
Dr. Mary Jean Loreche, spokesperson and chief pathologist of the DOH regional office (DOH-7), said the 70 samples that were collected between Dec. 30, 2020, and Jan. 2, 2021, were sent for genome sequencing after Cebu experienced a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases.
She told reporters on Thursday that it was “very possible that we have our own [variant] and this did not come from other countries.”
All the samples, however, tested negative for the UK B.1.1.7 variant, Loreche said.
“Mutations of concern” means that researchers have not yet identified the exact origin of the variant, she said.
“We have no name yet because they have not identified the actual, the entire sequence. That’s the problem here,’” she said.
Loreche said the two mutations were also of global concern since these were related to increased transmissibility.
While mutations could be more contagious, Loreche said health experts have yet to establish whether these could cause a more severe disease.
“For now, based on our data on rising cases, it’s most likely [that] this [mutation] is the cause of the high transmissibility [of the virus in Cebu]. That’s possible but it needs further studies,” she said.
Duque said there could be other reasons for the rise in the number of cases in Cebu, including the increased mobility of individuals following the declaration of a modified general community quarantine in the area.
When asked whether the DOH-7 would suggest stricter community quarantine in the region, Bernadas said they would need a two-week evaluation of the region’s health-care capabilities before they could make a recommendation.
National case update
“We will intensify our containment measures, intensify case finding and get our health capacities ready,” he said.
OCTA Research earlier said that if there were no changes implemented in Cebu, the number of new cases could reach 300 a day by the end of February. The group also warned that the health-care system in the province could be overwhelmed.
Nationwide, the DOH reported 1,901 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, raising the total case count in the country to 557,058.
It said 537 had recovered from the severe respiratory disease, bringing the total number of survivors to 512,789. However, 157 died, which increased the death toll to 11,829.
The deaths and recoveries left 32,440 active cases. A majority of them, or 86 percent, are mild cases, 8.5 percent are asymptomatic, 2.4 percent are in critical condition, 2.4 percent are severe cases and 0.72 percent are moderate cases.
The DOH also said it had removed six duplicate entries from the total case count, while 120 cases that were previously tagged as recoveries were reclassified as deaths after validation.
Four laboratories were not able to submit their test results on time.
Loreche said two overseas Filipino workers who returned to Cebu recently tested positive for COVID-19 even after they had been inoculated before their trip home.
The first was a man from the United Arab Emirates who was injected with a vaccine made by the Chinese state-run pharmaceutical company Sinopharm.
The man got two shots—the first on Dec. 12, 2020, and the second on Jan. 2. He arrived in Cebu on Jan. 5, and completed his quarantine on Jan. 20. The results of another swab three weeks later showed he was positive for COVID-19.
The second case was a woman who returned from Canada where she received one dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Jan. 13 prior to her trip back to Cebu. She tested positive on Feb. 14.
“If you notice there are no solid scientific studies yet as to the length of immunity that a vaccine can give,” Loreche said, explaining one possibility for the infections.
“It’s highly probable that the immunity that the vaccine has given as a protection has not kicked off yet. There is also a possibility that [they got] a different variant of COVID-19,” she added. —WITH A REPORT FROM ADOR VINCENT MAYOL
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