October 19, 2022
MANILA — The immune-evasive Omicron subvariant XBB and variant XBC have been detected in the country, the Department of Health (DOH) confirmed on Tuesday, adding that there have been five fatalities from XBC.
XBB and XBC are both recombinants, or recombined coronaviruses, with XBB recombined from the BJ.1 and BM.1.1.1 strains of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, and XBC, from the BA.2 sublineage of the Omicron and Delta variants.
The recombinants were first detected in August. XBB was found in more than 17 countries—including Singapore where it is currently the dominant cause of COVID-19 infections—while XBC has been “under monitoring” in the United Kingdom.
Last week the DOH said that it had not yet detected both XBB and XBC in the country.
But on Tuesday, its officer in charge, Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, said in a press briefing that 81 cases of XBB have been found in the Western Visayas and Davao regions, and 193 cases of XBC have been detected also in Western Visayas and Davao, as well as nine other regions.
But of the 81 XBB cases, 70 have recovered and eight are in isolation, with the remaining three still being verified, said Vergeire, who was joined by other health experts.
She also noted that XBB does not show any difference in severity from other highly transmissible variants despite its surge of infections in Singapore.
“The Singapore Ministry of Health stated that there is no sufficient evidence that the XBB variant causes a more severe illness,” she said.
On the other hand, there have been five deaths so far from XBC. The DOH has yet to provide further details on those fatalities.
Of the other 188 XBC cases in the country, 176 have recovered, three are in isolation, and nine are still being verified, Vergeire said.
Dr. Cynthia Saloma, executive director of the Philippine Genome Center (PGC), said the earliest documented sample of XBB was on Sept. 20, while XBC was first detected about a month earlier on Aug. 24.
Explaining the late advisory on those recombinants, she said XBB and XBC previously had “different lineage assignments.”
Saloma emphasized further that the PGC is capable of sequencing around 1,500 samples weekly—or only about 10 percent of the confirmed cases of those variants.
She also warned that highly transmissible, immune-evasive variants “continue to mutate as long as it is transmitted from person to person.”
“But as long as we protect ourselves and the vulnerable population through vaccination and booster shots, we will see that even if we get infected and later transmit the virus, … symptoms [would be less severe] compared to earlier cases,” Saloma said.
Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Edsel Salvana said that while XBB “seems to be more transmissible because it is able to evade vaccines, there is no need for drastic restrictions.”
“It is very important to continue to keep a close eye on this. But [there is] no need to panic—panic doesn’t solve anything. It also just means to stick to what we know works and we will be okay,” he said.
According to the latest DOH data, there has been an “incremental increase” in cases in most areas of the country the past week, but cases in Metro Manila and Mindanao are on a downtrend.
Pandemic monitor OCTA Research said on Tuesday that Metro Manila’s positivity rate had dropped to 15 percent on Saturday from 17.9 percent a week ago. But this is still above the World Health Organization’s recommended benchmark of below 5 percent.
Meanwhile Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion said on Tuesday that he has sent a proposal to Vergeire to bring in bivalent vaccines, which can grant immunity to two diseases.
“I hope the DOH can consider granting this first recommendation as soon as possible so we would know how many vaccines they must purchase,” he said in a statement.
Under his proposal, Concepcion will provide the DOH with the list of businesses and their employees who are willing to be inoculated to ensure that those that will be procured by the government will be used.
He added that the private sector can also help with the inoculation.
“Of utmost importance besides preregistration is the least disruption in the personal cost and work schedule of those to be vaccinated who are battling more pressing concerns,” Concepcion said in his letter.