A specialist on coronavirus variants, a genomic bio-surveillance expert from the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva is in Manila to assist in responding and managing the variants of Covid-19 said to have caused a surge in positive cases for the past few weeks.

Health Undersec. Maria Rosario Vergeire said the WHO expert is expected to stay in the country for at least one month to focus on assessing the impact of variants and its level of transmission in the country, as well as providing technical assistance and guidance on how variants could be better managed.

“The expert will tell us what we need to improve so we can see the true picture of the virus’ spread in our country,” Vergeire said.

Vergeire declined to name the expert but said the Philippines had requested for assistance from WHO.

The Philippines experienced a steep rise in Covid cases these past few weeks, with infections at an all-time high since the pandemic started in March 2020.

Among the reasons behind the drastic rise in cases, DOH said, was the presence of more infectious variants first found in the United Kingdom (B117), South Africa (B1351), and Brazil (P1). The increased transmission was also due to increased mobility and lower compliance with health standards as the country started to open up its economy.

All three variants have the so-called N501Y mutation, which is linked to increased transmissibility.  The B1351 and P1 variants, on the other hand, have the mutation E484K, which may reduce the efficacy of vaccines.

Aside from the presence of variants, the Philippine Genomic Center (PGC) also detected a variant called P3 from local samples in the Philippines.

PGC said the P3 “carries multiple mutations in the spike protein of the virus that are likely to have functional significance.  In particular, the E484K, N501Y and P681H mutations have been previously associated with known SARs-CoV2 variants of concern and, together with a 3 amino acid deletion at spike positions 141 to 143, have been linked to possible increased transmissibility and immune escape in some studies.”

Health officials said P3 was “not identified as a variant of concern as current available data are insufficient to conclude whether the variant will have significant public health implications.”