Duque: No entry ban yet on OFWs from India; variant there still 'under investigation'

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“ERRATUM: The first published version of this article had the headline, ‘Duque: No travel ban for now as India variant not yet one ‘of concern.’ We have corrected this as the B.1.617 first detected in India is still ‘under investigation’ and not a variant ‘of concern’ as defined by the World Health Organization. CNN Philippines has revised the headline to rectify the error. It now reads, ‘Duque: No entry ban yet on OFWs from India; variant there still 'under investigation.’”

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 27) — The Philippine government has yet to discuss a travel ban on OFWs returning from India in light of the so-called double-mutant COVID-19 variant found in the South Asian country, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said Tuesday.

In an interview with CNN Philippines' The Source, Duque said they have yet to discuss their latest actions on the B.1.617 coronavirus variant with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, especially on travel guidelines for overseas Filipino workers returning from India.

"We'll take this up in the IATF (meeting) — the matter of returning OFWs who might be coming from India," Duque said, noting that President Rodrigo Duterte will give the final directive on the issue.

"There's no (ban) on our OFWs because the policy on returning OFWs upon the directive of the President — they must be allowed to travel back home," he added.

The DOH earlier said the variant has a number of mutations that could increase transmissibility and help escape immune response. The Philippines has not recorded a case of the India variant for now.

Duque pointed out that the Philippine Genome Center and other medical experts have not yet classified the variant from India as a "variant of concern," unlike the variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil which have since spread around the country.

"The Philippine Genome Center has not reported to the IATF whether this has evolved to become a variant of concern. This is still considered a variant under investigation," Duque said.

A variant of concern, according to the World Health Organization, is associated with increased transmissibility or "detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation or decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures, available diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics." Medical experts around the world had said the variant in India does not yet qualify as a variant of concern despite the alarming growth of infections in that country.

Citing the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Duque said there are currently about 1,200 OFWs in India. Several countries such as the United States, Hong Kong, Pakistan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom already put India on the travel ban list to preempt transmission.

On Monday, India reported over 352,000 new cases of COVID-19, setting another world record for daily infections during the coronavirus pandemic.

At the Laging Handa briefing, Philippine Ambassador to New Delhi Ramon Bagatsing Jr. said the Philippines should not underestimate the India variant.

"We cannot underestimate this virus. Definitely, if other countries are stopping the travel of Indians to their countries, that is something our government should seriously consider," he said.

Former COVID-19 task force adviser Dr. Tony Leachon expressed a similar sentiment on Twitter, calling on the government to act with "a sense of urgency."

"Variants play an important role. People are waiting for DOH DFA travel advisory/ban. Sense of urgency is needed." because the policy on returning OFWs upon the directive of the President, they must be allowed to travel back home," he added.