Philippines to tighten border after first case of coronavirus variant detected

The Philippines has already banned travellers from at least 30 nations and territories.
The Philippines has already banned travellers from at least 30 nations and territories.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - The Philippines is tightening its border after the first case of a variant of the coronavirus, which is more transmissible, was detected in the country, health officials said on Thursday (Jan 14).

All travellers from the United Arab Emirates will be banned as the first case was that of a man who returned from Dubai earlier this month.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque, who told reporters he had no doubt that President Roderigo Duterte would approve the move, said the government would also consider requiring all inbound travellers, regardless of where they came from, to undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine.

The Philippines has already banned travellers from at least 30 nations and territories - including the United States, China, Britain and Singapore - till Jan 15 to prevent the spread of new variants of the coronavirus.

The tighter border controls came as regulators announced that they had approved the application of Pfizer for emergency use of its vaccine in the Philippines. They also said China's Sinovac had finally applied for emergency-use authorisation of its vaccine.

Pfizer has promised to supply the country with 25 million to 40 million doses of its vaccine, which is 95 per cent effective against Covid-19. But the company has not given a firm commitment on when it will ship the doses to the Philippines.

Instead, the Philippines is expecting to receive next month some 50,000 out of a promised 25 million doses of Sinovac's vaccine that trials in Brazil show is just slightly over 50 per cent effective.

Dr Edsel Salvana, who is advising the government on its Covid-19 response, said even at 50 per cent efficacy, Sinovac's vaccine "is potentially useful".

"It doesn't mean that with just 50 per cent it cannot be used," he told reporters, citing the efficacy of flu vaccines currently in use that ranged from 30 per cent to 70 per cent.

Responding to threats from the new variant of the coronavirus, the Health Ministry said a lockdown was not needed at this time.

"Quarantine restrictions will depend on the attack rate and hospital capacity," Mr Harry Roque, the president's spokesman, said at a news briefing.

As things stand, Dr Duque said hospitals still had half their bed capacity available for Covid-19 patients.

"Our absorptive capacity is enough," he said.

But the Health Ministry instructed local governments to step up their efforts to enforce current measures such as wearing masks and face shields while out in public.

"We're noticing that more and more people are not using their face shields where these shields are supposed to be: covering their faces. Instead, people are using the shields as headbands," said Dr Anna Lisa Lim, an infectious and tropical disease specialist at the Philippine General Hospital.

The ministry has also instructed its field offices to report spikes in cases of Covid-19 so it can quickly determine whether the new variant has already spread to other parts of the country.

This variant - officially known at VUI-202012/01 or lineage B117 - was first detected in Britain, and thought to be 70 per cent more transmissible than previously circulating variants.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry announced that it found the new variant in a 29-year-old real estate agent living in Quezon City in the capital region who went to Dubai for business from Dec 27 to Jan 7, the ministry said in a statement.

He tested positive a day after arriving back to the Philippines from Dubai. He went there with his girlfriend. She tested negative, but was again being tested.

Health experts here warned that the new variant could raise the country's total coronavirus caseload 15-fold.

The Philippines has tallied at least 492,700 cases of Covid-19, the second-highest in South-east Asia, after Indonesia. So far, some 9,600 have died.

Dr Duque said the numbers could still rise.

"We have to be very careful because we now have the UK variant. (Cases) could still accelerate with the start of the post-holiday surge. We just have to be doubly vigilant," he said.