MANILA - Health officials in the Philippines on Tuesday (March 2) said they have detected the South African variant of the coronavirus in the country, a discovery that could blunt the impact of its still nascent inoculation drive.
More cases of the more transmissible British variant have also been found, including imported infections brought in from Singapore.
In a statement, the Health Ministry reported that it had detected six cases of the B1351 variant that was first discovered in December last year in South Africa.
Three of those who tested positive for this altered version of the Covid-19 virus were in Pasay, a city of some 500,000 in Metro Manila that had on Feb 19 placed some 50 districts on a two-week lockdown after it saw Covid-19 infections surge by nearly threefold.
On Feb 27, President Rodrigo Duterte extended partial coronavirus curbs in the capital until the end of March, after a report of 2,651 new virus infections, the highest daily increase in more than four months.
Health Undersecretary Dr Maria Rosario Vergeire declined to say if this new variant was responsible for this surge.
"The probability is always there... but we still need to do a thorough analysis," she told reporters on Tuesday.
Of the three detected with the South African variant, two are Filipinos who had arrived in Manila from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The authorities have yet to establish if the third case is a local or imported infection.
"While there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe disease, the pattern of mutations within this variant suggests higher transmissibility and may have an impact on vaccine efficacy," the Health Ministry said in a statement.
Experts believe the South African version of the virus may spread more quickly than its cousins, and perhaps be harder to quash with current vaccines.
It carries genetic changes that could make it harder for antibodies produced by the immune system to recognise the coronavirus, which means they may be less effective at stopping the variant.
The Philippines began rolling out its biggest and most crucial immunisation programme on Monday after it received about 600,000 doses of a vaccine produced by China's Sinovac.
Sinovac's Brazilian partner had said the vaccine is effective against both the South African and British variants.
Researchers in China previously reported that Sinovac's vaccine triggers immunity against the South African variant, though its efficacy is "somewhat weaker".
There have already been concerns here, even among health professionals, over Sinovac's vaccine, as its efficacy rate swings broadly from 50 per cent to 90 per cent, and the data behind it have not been peer reviewed.
The government's top ministers and health officials have had themselves inoculated to allay these fears.
"Fifty per cent efficacy is still better than nothing... If I can be assured 100 per cent that I won't be hospitalised or end up in ICU (intensive care unit) as I go to work is so much already... So we will continue to dole out vaccines," Dr Vergeire told reporters.
The Health Ministry also reported on Tuesday that it detected 30 new cases of the B117 variant, first detected in Britain in September, bringing the total number of B117 infections in the country to 87.
Twenty were imported cases, brought in by Filipinos who flew in from Singapore, the United States and the Middle East.
Experts have warned that unless checked, infections in Metro Manila could surge back to 2,500 a day, the same level in August when the country's public health system was overwhelmed by a surge in Covid-19 patients.
Still, the government is looking at further easing restrictions to revive a stalled economy.
President Duterte, who earlier rejected his own pandemic task force's calls to relax curbs, said he was reconsidering that decision now that vaccines are being doled out.