By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES should brace for an uptick in coronavirus infections spurred by the XBB 1.5 variant, even as the positivity rate in many areas including the capital region has declined, according to the OCTA Research Group.

The Philippines would probably face an uptick in infections as early as February “because we’re monitoring another active subvariant in the US right now,” OCTA fellow Fredegusto P. David told OneNews Channel on Tuesday. “It’s XBB1.5 that may be causing a new wave in other parts of the world.”

“There may be a new subvariant that’s lurking,” he said. “We don’t know what’s happening in China. It’s possible that there will be new variants coming from China. They could be reaching one billion infections already by this month or by February.”

The Philippines expects more foreign tourists this year after doing away with the mask mandate and easing quarantine rules for travelers.

The Southeast Asian nation received more than two million foreign tourists last year, including 505,089 citizens from the US, which is now struggling to contain a surge in infections driven by the XBB1.5 subvariant.

Mr. David said the coronavirus positivity rate in Metro Manila had fallen to 5.8%. “In the provinces, we’re already seeing a low positivity rate. That means less than 5%.”

But there are still some areas with a high positivity rate, including Albay province in the Bicol Region at 25.6% and Isabela in the Ilocos Region at 35.1%, he said. “These are still high.”

“We’re noticing that Isabela has been registering fairly high or relatively high case numbers,” he said. “While we’re possibly on a downward trend, we don’t necessarily expect this to continue until the rest of the year.”

XBB 1.5 is the most infectious Omicron subvariant that has been detected so far, World Health Organization senior epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said last week, based on a Reuters report.

Health advocates have been urging the Philippine government to enforce more travel restrictions on travelers from countries with an alarming coronavirus situation, including China, which has been accused of failing to be fully transparent with its pandemic data.

Last week, the Health department said eight Filipinos who came home from China on Dec. 22 to Jan. 2 had tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival at Manila’s international airport.

China started doing away with its zero-COVID-19 strategy in December after public protests.

The US, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Australia, Italy, France and Spain are among the countries that have imposed coronavirus tests or additional requirements for passengers arriving from China.

There are worries that China might not be sharing data on new virus strains, which could lead to fresh outbreaks across the world. Chinese authorities have said the outbreak is driven by versions of the Omicron variant, which has also been detected in the Philippines.

Mr. David said the lack of COVID-19 tests in the Philippines could spur the infection uptick next month.

“We don’t really have an accurate count,” he said. “We have to be transparent. The level of testing we’re conducting now is only about 25% of what we were testing in 2021. It’s even lower than what we were testing in the first half of last year. Testing has really decreased.”

The widespread use of antigen tests in the Philippines might have also worsened underreporting, he added.

“A lot of people are using antigen tests because they’re cheaper, faster and they don’t use labs,” he said. “But there are testing centers that administer these so they could possibly report these at least so we could get a better sense of the numbers.”

“More people are experiencing milder symptoms because of Omicron. So, a lot of people are not getting tested or self-testing and this is not adding to the numbers.”

The Philippines posted 3,127 coronavirus infections in the past week, with a daily average of 447, the Health department said on Monday. The daily average from Jan. 2 to 6 was 9% lower than a week earlier, it said in a bulletin.

Of the new cases, seven were severe and critical.

The agency said it had verified 79 new deaths in the past week, 17 of which occurred on Dec. 26 to Jan. 8.

It said 431 of 2,379 intensive care unit (ICU) beds had been used as of Jan. 8, while 4,185 of 19,373 non-ICU beds were occupied. There were 507 severe and critical admissions, it added.

It added that 73.79 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, with 21.19 million having received booster shots.