More Delta Covid-19 variant found amid concerns the Philippines will be among last in Asia to reach herd immunity

The Department of Health's vaccine roll-out update showed 8,407,342 doses had been administered as of June 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Philippines has detected four more cases of the highly infectious Delta Covid-19 variant, prompting authorities to beef up border controls as a Britain-based think tank warned on Monday (June 21) that the country could be among the last in Asia to achieve herd immunity due to slow vaccine roll-out.

The Philippine Department of Health (DOH) said it has informed all of its units to be on guard against the Delta variant and placed the border controls on "heightened alert" to block further transmissions.

"All are on heightened alert. All LGUs (local government units) were informed to be on guard against the Delta variant across all borders. We cannot have nonuniformity in the implementation of our border control," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a media briefing on Monday.

Four Delta variant cases were detected from the 45 Covid-19 samples analysed by the Philippine Genome Centre (PGC) last week. All four are returning Filipinos; three have recovered and only one remains in the hospital.

A total of 17 Delta variant cases have so far been detected in the country; 15 have recovered, one has died while one is still ill.

First detected in India late last year, the Delta variant is becoming the dominant Covid-19 variant globally since it appears to be more transmissible, according to the World Health Organisation.

Studies showed that people infected with the Delta variant could be more likely to be hospitalised, but there is no evidence that it is more deadly than the other strains.

According to Dr Vergeire, the Delta variant is believed to be 60 per cent more transmissible than the contagious Alpha variant first detected in the United Kingdom late last year. An Alpha-positive person can infect four to five persons, while a Delta-positive one can infect eight persons, she explained.

The government has banned the entry of travellers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Oman and the United Arab Emirates until June 30 to prevent the entry of the Delta variant.

The DOH urged local governments to strictly comply with quarantine protocols for all international arrivals. This calls for a 10-day hotel quarantine and a swab test done on Day 7 upon arrival. If tested negative, the traveller will continue to quarantine at home for four days.

But an infectious diseases expert said the Philippines need not shut its borders to inbound passengers with travel history in countries with reported cases of the Delta variant, but rather strictly implement local quarantine procedures.

Dr Rontgene Solante said the Delta strain was still not the dominant one in the Philippines, despite the addition of four new cases in the country.

But in the absence of a more extensive genomic surveillance of the Covid-19 variants in the Philippines, Dr Solante said, "it is very important to monitor all these incoming especially if they come from countries where… the India variant is the dominant variant."

'Improved version'

According to a study published by the medical journal Eurosurveillance, Dr Solante said 64 countries investigated "expected the to rapidly outcompete other variants and become the dominant circulating lineage over the coming months".

"This is something that we need to closely monitor new evidence that this Delta variant is 60 per cent more transmissible UK (Alpha) variant," Dr Solante said in a television interview on Monday.

In a Viber message, Dr Solante said the Delta variant has "characteristics" or mutations in the spike protein that make it "more stable" in a person's upper respiratory tract, resulting in more virus potentially expelled into the air or passed on to another person.

He said studies had also described the Delta variant as an "improved version" of the Alpha variant.

Genome study

Out of the 45 Covid-19 samples analysed last week, the PGC detected 39 highly contagious variants (including the four Delta variants).

The DOH called for strengthening quarantine protocols, testing, and isolation at all borders and localities, strict adherence to public health standards, and vaccination to minimise transmission of Covid-19 and prevent the emergence of variants.

It, however, would not conclude that infectious Covid-19 variants were the main driver of the surge of cases in the Visayas and Mindanao. "With the speed (of transmission) we can suspect this, but we have no strong evidence," Health Undersecretary Abdullah Dumama said in the briefing.

All three regions in the Visayas and five regions in Mindanao are experiencing a growth of cases. "They have been showing a positive two-week growth rate, thus we need to intensify our responses," Mr Dumama said.

According to the DOH, three of the four detected Delta variant cases are seafarers from the MV Eastern Hope, which is currently docked in South Korea.

The three crew members have been to Japan and South Korea where they tested positive for Covid-19 and were repatriated on June 3. Two of them have been discharged while the third is still in a Metro Manila hospital.

The fourth is a migrant worker who returned from Saudi Arabia on May 24 and recovered on June 10.

In its latest sequencing, the PGC detected 14 more cases of the Alpha variant that was first detected in the United Kingdom, and 21 more cases of the Beta variant that was first found in South Africa.

Twelve of the Alpha variant cases are local cases while there was no immediate information on the rest. Two of the cases have died while 12 have recovered.

The DOH said 20 of the 21 Beta variant cases are local cases; there is no information on the other one. Only one remains an active case.

The PGC also reported one case of the Theta variant first detected in the Philippines, though this is not tagged a variant of concern. The patient has recovered.

On Monday, 5,249 more Covid-19 cases were reported, pushing the total to 1,364,239. Eight laboratories did not submit test results, the DOH said.

The department declared 7,053 infected people as recovered, bringing total recoveries to 1,284,643.

On the other hand, 128 more people succumbed to Covid-19, including 45 people who were previously tagged as recoveries, for a total of 23,749 deaths.

There are still 55,847 active cases, including 62 who were previously tagged as recoveries.

Of the active cases, 91.4 per cent are mild, 4.1 per cent asymptomatic, 1.32 per cent moderate, 1.9 per cent severe and 1.3 per cent critical.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom-based Pantheon Macroeconomics said in a report that most Asian countries could achieve herd immunity - including from the more contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 - by next year, except for the Philippines and Vietnam where mass vaccination lagged behind their neighbours.

In a report on "vaccination rates emerging Asia" posted on its website on Monday, the think tank said herd immunity could be achieved if 85 per cent of populations were vaccinated, taking into consideration the emergence of the Delta variant first detected in India in February.

At the current pace of vaccinations in emerging Asian economies including India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, the organisation said the Philippines would be among the last to reach herd immunity.

"The relatively slow pace of vaccination in the Philippines implies that early 2023 probably is the best the archipelago can hope for," said the report by Mr Miguel Chanco, senior Asia economist of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

The Department of Health's vaccine roll-out update on Monday showed 8,407,342 doses had been administered as of June 20.

The number of first doses administered reached 6,253,400, and the number of recipients who have completed their second dose was 2,153,942 as of Sunday night.

Mass vaccination has been going on for four months now and has covered more priority groups apart from medical frontliners, the elderly and those with comorbidities.

The government targets to vaccinate 70 million Filipinos by year-end.

Regional outlook

Elsewhere in the region, Pantheon Macroeconomics said Vietnam "likely will be a victim of its own success, as its much-lauded 'zero Covid-19' stance means that protection from previous infection is close to zero, which doesn't mix well with its regionally sluggish jab roll-out".

Pantheon Macroeconomics' estimates showed immunity against the Delta variant could be achieved in India as early as the third quarter of this year.

The think tank said Thailand will reach herd immunity by the second quarter of 2022, and Indonesia in the third quarter of that year.

"The daily rate of vaccination has picked up noticeably in the region since the middle of last month, suggesting that the supply issues these developing countries are facing finally are being smoothed out," the report said.

"Large parts of emerging Asia can now realistically hope to achieve some semblance of herd immunity before the middle of next year-even if the threshold is higher to contain the Delta variant-assuming they are at least able to sustain the current rate of vaccination," the report said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.