MANILA - The "double mutant" coronavirus variant currently wreaking havoc in India has reached the Philippines.
The country reported its first cases of the virulent strain on Tuesday (May 11), with health officials telling reporters the B1617 variant was found in two Filipinos returning from the Middle East who had not been to India.
The World Health Organisation has classified B1617, first detected in India in October, as a "variant of global concern", with some preliminary studies showing that it spreads more easily.
Two Filipino seafarers, aged 37 and 58, who arrived in Manila from Oman and the United Arab Emirates in mid-April, were found to be infected with the variant.
In line with the Philippines' travel rules, both were immediately quarantined upon arrival at the airport and tested positive for Covid-19 about a week later.
They have since recovered and tested negative before they were released from quarantine.
The two men were not among about 150 travellers from India who arrived in the Philippines from April 1 to April 30. Five of these travellers tested positive for the coronavirus, though from strains other than B1617.
Health officials have also been checking if 12 Filipino seafarers on board a container ship from India that docked in Manila four days ago were carrying the B1617 variant. They all tested positive for Covid-19, with two needing critical care. Their samples are being sequenced to determine which variant they are carrying.
The Philippines is already wrestling with three Covid-19 variants from Britain, South Africa and Brazil, and a fourth one with a mutation unique to the country.
These variants fuelled a devastating surge in March that forced the government to put a quarter of the nation's population in Metro Manila and four nearby provinces under a two-week hard lockdown.
With 1.1 million infections and 18,562 deaths, the Philippines has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases and casualties in South-east Asia, next to Indonesia.
The Philippines has already barred travellers coming from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh from entering the country.
This travel ban and other quarantine and shelter-at-home restrictions remain in force and have been credited with pushing back the surge.
Researchers say the number of daily Covid-19 cases in the Philippines has plunged by half to about 2,400 so far this month.
The positivity rate - the number of those testing positive - has fallen to 16 for every 100 tested, and the virus is no longer spreading as quickly as it used to.
Hospitals now have about half their beds available for all types of patients.
But health experts are recommending a "slow and calibrated" easing of quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila.
They also suggest that the vaccine roll-out should, for now, be focused on Metro Manila and other hot spots.
President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to announce whether he will allow an easing of restrictions before May 15.
"We see that while cases are going down, the virus is still there, just lurking. Now we know that there are several variants circulating, it's not difficult to see another surge happening," Dr Edsel Salvana, an epidemiologist advising a government task force seeking to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, told reporters.
Dr Marissa Alejandria, director of the Institute of Clinical Epidemiology, said variants "don't respect borders".
"When we drop our guard and relax our measures, that's when the surge happens," she said.
Still, the pressure to lift restrictions that prevent a reopening of the economy is there.
The government's economic managers reported on Tuesday that gross domestic product shrank by 4.2 per cent in the first quarter. This means the economy has been in recession for five straight quarters, the longest since the Marcos-era debt crisis in the 1980s.