COVER STORY

FAST FACTS: New coronavirus variants detected in PH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines)— A number of nations face fresh challenges months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with new virus variants seen as hurdles in crisis response.

Expert tagged variants first reported in other countries including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, and the US as highly contagious — with some possibly even dodging protection from newly developed vaccines.

The Philippines was not spared from them. The country so far logged cases of the B.1.1.7, the B.1.351, and the P.1 variants — the UK, South Africa, and Brazil variants — triggering localized lockdowns, massive testing, and intensive contact tracing in areas of concern.

A new variant dubbed as the P.3 was also discovered in the Philippines, but health officials noted there is not enough data to classify this is a variant of concern.

Here’s what we know so far about their presence in the country:

B.1.1.7 (UK variant)

What it is

The B.1.1.7 SARS-CoV-2 variant, also known as the UK variant, had a “large number of mutations” and is associated with increased virus transmissibility, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers said the variant first emerged in the UK in September 2020.

First detection in PH

The UK variant was first detected in the country in January. Samples from a Filipino who returned home from the United Arab Emirates yielded positive genome sequencing results, health officials confirmed.

Where it stands

As of March 16, at least 177 people in the country have been infected with the B.1.1.7 variant

Latest data released by the Health Department showed that UK variant cases were recorded in the following regions:

— Cordillera Administrative Region

— Metro Manila

— Calabarzon (Region 4-A)

— Central Luzon

— Northern Mindanao (Region 10)

A number of variant cases were tagged as returning overseas Filipinos from the Middle East, Singapore, and the US. One foreign national was also listed under this category.

Are vaccines effective?

Earlier studies stated the absence of evidence that the variant would have an impact on the efficacy of developed vaccines.

However, UK researchers reported in February that a mutation allowing COVID-19 to escape antibody protection — dubbed as the E484K — was found in some samples of the B.1.1.7 variant.

B.1.351 (South Africa variant)

What it is

The B.1.351 variant was first discovered in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa in October 2020, and also has multiple mutations in the spike protein, according to the US CDC.

First detection in PH

DOH announced the first six cases of the South Africa variant on March 2.

Where it stands

As of March 16, at least 90 cases of B.1.351 variant infection have been recorded in the country. Majority of the South Africa variant cases were in Metro Manila.

Are vaccines effective?

Experts expressed concern over this variant after researchers in South Africa warned that it could impact the efficacy of vaccines.

Health Spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said the variant has a component of “immune escape” – wherein the vaccine may have trouble in helping the inoculated patient build antibodies to fight the virus because of the presence of the E484K mutation.

OCTA Research Group fellow and molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco earlier warned that the AstraZeneca vaccine, in particular, may not do its job of protecting the public should this variant continue to spread. Quoting global studies, Austriaco said the variant dramatically decreases the product's efficacy from 70% to 10%.

Despite this, the World Health Organization continues to back the use of the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm.

P.1 variant (Brazil variant)

What it is

The P.1 variant was first publicly reported by Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases. It was identified among four travelers from Brazil, who were tested during an airport screening in the East Asian country.

The US CDC said there is evidence that some mutations of this variant may affect virus transmissibility as well as the ability of antibodies generated through previous infection.

First detection in PH

The P.1 variant was found in samples of an OFW who returned from Brazil and hails from Western Visayas, DOH announced in March.

P.3 variant

What it is

The P.3 variant— believed to have a “unique set of mutations”— was first discovered in the Philippines, but health officials refused to label it as the Philippine variant just yet.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque said the variant cannot be classified as a “variant of concern,” noting that more data is needed regarding its transmissibility and effects on current vaccines.

Where it stands

There are 98 cases of the P.3 variant in the country as of March 16.

Meanwhile, two cases linked to this variant were also detected in England.

The Public Health England said one of the cases was “linked with international travel,” while the other is currently under probe.

This story will be updated as more information comes in.