A new COVID-19 variant officially designated as Lineage “P.3” was detected in the Philippines on 10 March 2021 as reported by the Philippine Genome Center (PGC). The variant was found from local samples in Central Visayas, collected on the same dates where there was a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases recorded in the region.
What do we know so far?
- P.3 is designated as a variant under investigation (VUI) and not yet identified as a variant of concern (VOC) by the Department of Health (DOH), as the current available data are not enough to conclude that it will have significant implications to public health. Public Health England has classified it as a VUI.
- To date, there are 104 total infections caused by the P.3 variant in the Philippines, of which majority are detected in Central Visayas. Samples from the Philippines were collected in late January up to February 2, 2021, and the sequencing run was conducted on February 4, 2021 by the PGC.
- The results reported by PGC indicate that P.3 is found to bear multiple mutations of concern in the spike protein region. In simple terms, there were multiple changes detected in the spike region of the P.3 variant, the part of the virus responsible for attaching to human cells, which may possibly have “functional significance” as reported by PGC.
- These mutations, or changes detected in P.3. are identified as E484K, N501Y, and P681H. They have been previously associated with known COVID-19 variants linked to possible increased transmissibility and immune escape. There is still no proof, based on available data, that P.3 is more infectious than the original version of Sars-CoV-2, but the presence of these three mutations suggests that it is possible.
- There are NO reports that the P.3 variant leads to worse symptoms of COVID-19.
What does it tell us?
- Although not classified as a VOC, PGC recommends strengthening measures to prevent the spread of P.3 to other regions in the Philippines and other countries due to the potential public health implications of these mutations.
- Regardless if we are situated in Metro Manila or in the provinces, we must not stop or even minimize practicing the minimum public health standards. With the recent announcement of Enhanced Community Quarantine in Metro Manila, Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, and Bulacan, the DOH urges the public to stay at home unless extremely necessary and remember to avoid the three Cs (Closed spaces, Crowded places, and Close contact settings).
What is DOST-PCHRD doing?
- DOST-PCHRD initiated the funding and support for the biosurveillance studies of PGC on COVID-19 in the Philippines through the ARCHER Program. This support started six months ago, in October 2020, to aid current government efforts get a more comprehensive picture of the spread of the disease in the country. To date, the biosurveillance service of PGC is also being funded by the DOH.
- DOST-PCHRD supports PGC’s recommendation to strengthen measures to prevent the spread of the P.3 variant to other regions and countries. So far, four, two, and one of each P.3 virus sequences have been submitted by the UK, Australia, Germany and Japan, respectively, in the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) database which has now more than 700,000 SARS-CoV-2 submitted sequences.
- In the long term, the Council aims to aid the government in determining the dynamics of the spread of the disease throughout its course.
- This health research effort aims to provide our policymakers guidance in future planning with regard to epidemics in the country. Collected data from this project will be part of a baseline for the country for improving our health disaster responses in the future.
Variants, strains, and mutations simplified
Although connected in several ways, the terms variants, strains, and mutations do not mean the same thing. In simple terms,
- Even a virus commits errors in copying itself. When a virus makes copies of itself or duplicates inside our body, sometimes, there are letters in the genome that are not written correctly. As a result, there are copies that are not made exactly the same as the original version, and we call this mutation. Just like how mistakes are natural in people, mutations are also natural in viruses.
- As a result of its error of not perfectly copying itself, this mutation changes the new copy’s genome. Take note that several mutations may exist in a single copy, and when this happens, a new variant of the virus occurs.
- A strain, on the other hand, simply refers to a subtype of a larger virus species but has different characteristics. For example, SARS-CoV-2 is a strain of the larger coronavirus family that causes respiratory infections, in the same way that MERS-CoV is also a strain of coronavirus.
With the upcoming Holy Week, everyone is encouraged to avoid large congregations and practice religious activities at home. It is always recommended to maintain social distance, wear masks when going outside, and wash hands frequently.