New variants drive spike in Covid-19 cases in the Philippines

Cases in Metro Manila hit the average levels recorded in July last year when hospitals were swamped with patients.
Cases in Metro Manila hit the average levels recorded in July last year when hospitals were swamped with patients.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - Metro Manila is seeing a spike in Covid-19 infections as more transmissible variants of the coronavirus spread amid government efforts to revive a stalled economy.

In recent weeks, the Health Ministry has been reporting more than 2,000 daily infections across the Philippines. On Sunday (March 7), it reported 3,276 new Covid-19 cases.

Cases in Metro Manila - the capital region that is home to over 13 million people - rose to 1,025 a day last week from 721 the previous week, hitting the average levels recorded in July last year when hospitals were swamped with patients.

"Unfortunately, this is already a big surge. Unlike past surges, the current surge has spread very quickly in a short period," Mr Guido David, a spokesman for the University of the Philippines-based Octa Research Group, said on Sunday.

He added that this suggested the surge was "variant-driven".

On Friday, the Health Ministry reported over 70 infections in Metro Manila by coronavirus variants first detected in Britain and South Africa.

Experts believe these two variants may spread faster and perhaps be harder to quash with current vaccines.

The Health Ministry has been holding meetings with hospital chiefs to ensure there will be enough hospital beds if the current trend in infections holds.

"Nothing is uncontrollable at this point," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters on Saturday.

At present, the Philippines is experiencing the second-worst Covid-19 outbreak in South-east Asia after Indonesia, with close to 600,000 cases and over 12,500 deaths.

The country's largest public hospital has had to arrange for its interns and clerks to work from home following a sudden increase in Covid-19 patients.

"The number in the first four days of March practically equals the monthly totals for December, January and February," the Philippine General Hospital said in a staff memo.

Last month, the Philippines began to inoculate its over 100 million people. But with a supply squeeze, it may not have enough doses to rout a likely spread of the new coronavirus variants.

Octa's Mr David said while the current surge "is a serious cause for concern, it is still in its early stages, and we believe it can still be mitigated or even reversed".

Dr Vergeire said that more than the emergence of new variants, it is complacency that could be driving the current surge in infections.

She said people had been going out more and gathering in bigger, tighter groups.

The government has been moving to relax quarantine curbs as it tries to create jobs and reopen more companies.

Border restrictions have been removed, but mayors in Metro Manila have walked back plans to reopen cinemas and gaming arcades.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said on Sunday that a task force supervising efforts to roll back the local Covid-19 outbreak would consider this latest surge in deciding whether to further ease restrictions next month.