A MICROSCOPIC photo of the coronavirus. — NIAID

THE PHILIPPINES has confirmed its first case of the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, which experts consider to be the most contagious coronavirus, the Department of Health (DoH) said on Tuesday.

In a report, the agency said 196 of 1,078 samples from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 were XBB subvariants, including one case of XBB.1.5.

The XBB subvariants were found in all regions except in Eastern Visayas and the Bangsamoro region, DoH said.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control had classified XBB.1.5, an offshoot of the XBB subvariant, as a variant of interest because of its increasing prevalence globally and enhanced immune-evading properties. It has been detected in 59 countries across six continents.

The XBB.1.5 subvariant accounted for two-thirds of infections in the United States on Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, according to estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest Omicron subvariant is the most contagious and can escape the immune system, the Health department said, citing the World Health Organization (WHO).

There’s no evidence that it causes a more severe disease than the original Omicron variant.

The WHO still reports the XBB.1.5 subvariant under XBB and will remain classified under Omicron until there’s evidence that its characteristics are significantly different from Omicron.

The subvariant is rapidly spreading in the US, accounting for 41% of COVID-19 cases at end-December.

XBB.1.5 has been found in several European countries including Britain, Germany and France. It has also been reported in India and Singapore.

Meanwhile, the Philippines expects to get at least 1.4 million doses of COVID-19 bivalent vaccines after the government got a commitment from another donor country, Health officer-in-charge Maria Rosario S. Vergeire told a news briefing.

The country will get 300,000 doses of the vaccine soon, she said.

These are on top of the more than a million bivalent vaccine doses that a World Health Organization-backed vaccine platform had committed to donate to the Philippines next month.

“We have a concrete [number] of almost 1.4 million doses of bivalent vaccines,” Ms. Vergeire said. She declined to name the donor country pending negotiations.

The first batch of bivalent vaccines, which will be delivered to the country by the WHO’s COVAX facility in March, will be used for health workers, seniors and people with health risks, she said.

She added that the Health department is coordinating with manufacturers for the procurement of bivalent vaccines, which target both the Omicron variant and original coronavirus strain.

The agency is drafting the guidelines for their use. “Guidelines will be issued soon so that our local government units can prepare already.”

Ms. Vergeire earlier asked the private sector not to buy more doses of the bivalent vaccines yet to avoid wastage. About 24 million vaccine doses have expired so far, she said, adding that about 26 million doses remained unused.

Of the unused vaccines, 16 million doses are in the national warehouse, while 10 million have been distributed to local governments.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. has yet to appoint a secretary for the Health department, which has been temporarily headed by Ms. Vergeire since July.

Ms. Vergeire said she had yet to meet with the president to discuss the appointment of the Health chief. “We just wait and we do not like to preempt the decision of the president. Let’s just wait for his decision.”

Ms. Vergeire said she would prioritize health equity and access once she’s appointed Health secretary.

“I would like to focus on access and equity,” she said, noting that Filipinos should get health services when needed.

“Equity, of course, is the focus on the vulnerable, focus on the poor, focus on those who need government services and assistance.”

She said Filipinos should also have financial protection so that they could buy medicines and afford health services.

The Health department is working on financial protection programs, she said, citing the outpatient drug benefit package provided by the state-run Philippine Health Insurance Corp.

Under the package, health patients of primary care centers are sent to pharmacies accredited by the state health insurer to get medicines for free.

Ms. Vergeire also wants to focus on building more specialty centers in line with the president’s direction. “We’d like to expand these kinds of facilities.”

Last week, Ms. Vergeire said she’s ready to be tapped as the agency’s chief.

The Philippines continued to post more than a thousand weekly coronavirus infections, with 145 daily cases on average on Jan. 30 to Feb. 5, DoH said on Monday.

There were 1,012 COVID-19 cases in the past week. The daily average from Jan. 30 to Feb. 5 was 16% lower than a week earlier. There were no severe and critical cases, it added.

DoH said it had verified 85 more deaths in the past week, 11 of which occurred on Jan. 23 to Feb. 5.

It added that 288 of 2,030 intensive care unit (ICU) beds had been used as of Feb. 5, while 3,449 of 17,627 non-ICU beds were occupied. There were 388 severe and critical admissions.

The agency said 73.85 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, 21.39 million of whom had booster shots.

“Cases are likely to remain low given that there is no surge in the rest of the world,” Fredegusto P. David, a fellow at OCTA Research Group, said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “But a new variant could cause a wave anytime.”

In its weekly report published on Feb. 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) said globally, almost 20 million new cases were reported on Jan. 2 to 29, 78% lower than in the past 28 days.

More than 114,000 more deaths were reported during the period, 65% higher than a month earlier.

As of Jan. 29, more than 753 million people have been sickened by the coronavirus worldwide, with 6.8 million deaths, WHO said. — Norman P. Aquino and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza