Experts urge intensified fight vs COVID-19 due to rising cases, new variant

Experts studying the coronavirus outbreak in the country urged the government to step up its fight against COVID-19, as cases in the country increase after the holidays and with the detection of a fast spreading variant of the virus in the United Kingdom.

In its latest report released on Tuesday, January 12, the Octa Research Group said that the reproduction number (R) – the number of people that one COVID-19 positive case can infect – in virus epicenter Metro Manila has increased to 1.17 from 1.02.

They noted that R remained below 1 throughout the holiday season as testing capacity was reduced to 40%.

"There is a clear upward trend now... and if this upward trend continues, the local governments will need to implement measures to reverse this direction before the pandemic gets out of hand," the Octa team said.

Experts have said that the goal was to keep R below 1 to contain virus transmission until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. An R above 1 means that the the virus is spreading faster.

The positivity rate in Metro Manila, however, remained at 4% – below the 5% recommended by the World Health Organization.

In a press briefing on Tuesday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire urged the public to interpret the cases for the past days with caution, as the country's testing might have returned to its normal capacity. She added that they could determine if there is a surge in cases next week.

On Monday, January 11, the Department of Health (DOH) logged over 2,000 coronavirus cases – the first time the Philippines surpassed that level since December 18, when the country recorded 2,122.

Areas of concern

The Octa team identified Marikina as area of concern in Metro Manila due to its increase of 127% in cases compared to previous week and its positivity rate of 11%.

The experts noted that hospital occupancy in the cities of Metro Manila has not reached critical level. Pateros, the lone municipality in the National Capital Region, however, was the only exception with a hospital occupancy rate reaching critical level.

Table from Octa Research

Outside Metro Manila, the Octa team identified these provinces as areas of concern: Davo del Sur (including Davao City), Isabela, Quezon, Misamis Oriental, Pangasinan, Agusan del Sur, and Negros Oriental.

"We urge the local government units (LGUs) concerned to further intensify their efforts at testing, tracing, and isolation to reverse the increase in transmissions in their communities. The national and local governments must work together more closely towards this end," they said.

Threats of new COVID-19 variants

The DOH said last Friday, January 8, that aside from the United Kingdom variant – believed to be more infectious than the original variant of SARS-CoV-2 – it is also monitoring other variants of the virus found in South Africa and Malaysia.

Despite the case of the Filipino in Hong Kong found to have the UK variant, the DOH maintained that this variant has not yet reached the Philippines, based on results of the Philippine Genome Center's genome sequencing released last Wednesday, January 6. 

"The national government must further ensure that effective and stricter border controls are in place to mitigate COVID-19 transmissions in our airports and ports as well as within and between provinces to prevent further transmissions, including the possible entry of the more infectious COVID-19 variant from the UK," the Octa team said.

The detection of the new variants has pushed countries, including the Philippines, to tighten border restrictions anew as a precaution.

The pandemic has so far infected over 90 million people globally. In the Philippines, a total of 489,736 have been infected with the deadly virus as of Monday. Of the total, 9,416 have died, while 458,206 have recovered. –

Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol is a multimedia reporter for Rappler, covering health, education, and social welfare. He first joined Rappler as a social media producer in 2016.