By Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

A MORE contagious coronavirus strain that has caused a fresh surge in cases in Europe has yet to reach Philippine shores, Health authorities said on Wednesday.

The new variant had not been detected in any of the 305 positive samples from patients admitted to various hospitals in the past two months and from inbound travelers who tested positive at the airports, the Department of Health (DoH) said in a statement.

Hong Kong authorities on Tuesday said a 30-year-old female Hong Kong resident who arrived from the Philippines on Dec. 22 tested positive for the new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) strain.

Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Communicable Disease Branch of Hong Kong’s Health department, told a news briefing they had found four cases with the new coronavirus strain, one of whom was the Hong Kong resident who arrived on Dec. 22 via a Philippine Airlines flight.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said they were coordinating with Hong Kong health authorities for further details on the passenger.

She said they had first reached out to the International Health Regulations Focal Point of Hong Kong but did not get a response. They contacted the Western Pacific Regional Office and got a direct line to the Ministry of Health of Hong Kong. “We are now trying to call directly so we can get further details,” she told an online briefing on Wednesday.

Ms. Vergeire said they had received the flight manifest from the Bureau of Quarantine containing the names of the 40 passengers of the Philippine Airlines flight.

She said they were reaching out to two 30-year-old female passengers whose nationalities were still unknown. “We just zeroed in initially on the two. Now we are contact tracing the other 38 passengers,” she said in mixed English and Filipino.

Ms. Vergeire said the two passengers who matched the profile from Hong Kong authorities had both tested negative before they left for Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, John Q. Wong, founder of health research team Epimetrics, Inc., said cases could increase by fifteenfold after a month if the new strain becomes dominant. At a reproduction rate of 1.1, the 20,000 cases at the start of the month would have gone up to 32,000 cases by the end of January,  he told the same briefing.

“But if the variant takes over, the 20,000 cases can become almost 300,000 cases by the end of the month. So this is what we want to avoid,” he said.

Mr. Wong said the country could still prevent infections by following health protocols such as wearing face masks and shields. “It is within our power to control this through our own behavior.”

DoH reported 1,047 coronavirus infections on Wednesday, bringing the total to 480,737.

The death toll rose by 26 to 9,347, while recoveries increased by 339 to 448,700, it said in a bulletin.

There were 22,690 active cases, 81.8% of which were mild, 8.5% did not show symptoms, 6% were critical, 3.2% were severe and 0.52% were moderate.

Davao City reported the highest number of new cases at 79, followed by Quezon City at 58, Laguna at 55, and Bulacan and Cagayan de Oro City at 40 each.

DoH said 3 duplicates had been removed from the tally while 13 recovered cases were reclassified as deaths. Three laboratories failed to submit their data on Jan. 5.

More than 6.5 million people have been tested for the coronavirus in the Philippines as of Jan. 3, according to DoH’s tracker website.

The coronavirus has sickened about 86.9 million and killed 1.9 million people worldwide, according to the Worldometers website, citing various sources including data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

About 61.6 million people have recovered, it said.

Also on Wednesday, an inter-agency task force against the coronavirus has  formed a team that will monitor and detect the new virus strain in the country. The team will also recommend the appropriate response, according to a copy of its resolution.

Ms. Vergeire will head the technical working group. Executive Director Jaime Montoya of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development will serve as co-chairman. — with K.A.T. Atienza