MANILA - The Philippines has reported its first cases of the highly contagious Delta variant in its sprawling capital, prompting calls from health officials to tighten quarantine curbs and border controls and ramp up a supplies-hobbled vaccine rollout.
The Health Ministry said on Friday (July 16) that it found 16 infections caused by the variant, first detected in India.
Five were Filipinos returning from overseas, while the rest were classified as "local cases", including two in Manila, home to some 2 million people. One of the two died as he was being rushed to a hospital. The other managed to pull through.
Most of the patients have not been inoculated.
Health officials insist there are no signs yet of a community transmission, as the infections appear "sporadic" and not found in clusters.
"If we look at the trend, it's sporadic. It's not clustered around a single place. It's just one case here, another there," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters.
But virus trackers are concerned that the Delta variant may be fuelling a surge in densely populated cities south of Manila where infections remain high, although these places have been under lockdown for weeks.
On Thursday, three cities in central and southern Philippines that have been hit by a relentless wave of infections - Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro and Gingoog - were placed under "enhanced community quarantine", the highest lockdown category that carries hard, sweeping shelter-at-home restrictions.
The Philippines has so far managed to avoid a deadly outbreak of the Delta variant that has plagued its neighbours.
Indonesia has been setting records, with its daily caseload skyrocketing to over 50,000. Malaysia has also been tallying record cases, chalking up over 12,000 cases in recent days. Surges are also being seen in Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.
The Philippines has kept its caseload at below 6,000 a day, though it still has the second-worst outbreak in South-east Asia, after Indonesia, with close to 1.5 million infections and over 26,000 deaths.
The country went through a deadly surge in March and April that saw daily cases soaring to as high as 15,000.
It reimposed sweeping curbs in Metro Manila and four nearby provinces, which span a third of its population, and tightened its borders. These measures rolled back the virus' spread.
The government has since been easing restrictions, though at a very cautious pace amid the threat of a Delta outbreak.
The Health Ministry's advisers have said it is likely the Delta variant will soon spread here as well.
The government is already prepping the public health system, said its "vaccine czar", Mr Carlito Galvez.
Field hospitals and massive isolation centres have already been built. Hospitals have been stockpiling treatments for Covid-19 symptoms.
The Trade Ministry has asked oxygen suppliers to be ready to double their output, as the current surplus may not be enough if the Philippines is hit by a wave of cases as deadly as the ones Indonesia and Malaysia are experiencing.
The country has also been tightening its borders. It recently banned all travellers from Indonesia, and extended a similar ban on those coming from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.
It is considering barring travellers from Malaysia and Thailand as well.
Health officials are advising the public to stay home and go out only for essential runs, with masks and face shields always on.
Those in charge of the government's vaccine roll-out, meanwhile, have assured the people of at least 9 million doses in July.
The Philippines began inoculating its population in March. So far, only 13 million out of 109 million have received a jab.
"We were given time to prepare, so we're doing everything we can right now," said Dr Vergeire, the health undersecretary.
Dr Edsel Salvana, a molecular epidemiologist and technical adviser to the Health Ministry, said: "If we use all the tools available to us, the vaccines, minimum public health standards, strict border controls, we can still expect a happy Christmas. At least, people will be alive. No one else will die from Covid."