Vergeire heads team of doctors assigned to study new COVID-19 variants

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Department of Health Undersecretary and Spokesperson Ma. Rosario Vergeire (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 6) — Department of Health Undersecretary Ma. Rosario Vergeire has been named as head of a group of experts tasked to study new COVID-19 variants and suggest policies to the country's coronavirus task force.

In a statement, Malacañang said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases on Tuesday created the Technical Working Group (TWG) on COVID-19 Variants upon the order of President Rodrigo Duterte.

"This Technical Working Group will monitor and identify the occurrence of new variants of COVID-19 in the country and will provide policy recommendations to the IATF on the appropriate response regarding these variants," the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson said.

READ: Study on presence of new COVID-19 variant in PH out this week

Vergeire heads the body while Dr. Jaime Montoya, executive director of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, will serve as co-chair.

Other members of the TWG are Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, Dr. Marissa Alejandria, and Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana of the DOH Technical Advisory Group; Dr. Celia Carlos, director of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine; Dr. Eva Maria Cutiongco-Dela Paz, executive director of the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health; Dr. Cynthia Saloma, executive director of the University of the Philippines – Philippine Genome Center; and Dr. John Wong, president of EpiMetrics who is also an epidemiologist and data analytics adviser for the IATF.

The group of medical professionals will recommend policies to the IATF, a group composed of military generals and Cabinet secretaries of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Philippines is on guard against the new COVID-19 variants and their possibly entry. The variant first discovered in the United Kingdom is said to be more infectious, and is believed to be the cause of the recent surge in cases.

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A travel ban covering 21 countries is in place from December 22 until January 15, although Filipinos flying home from these jurisdictions will be accepted subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine even if they test negative for COVID-19. 

Testing czar Vince Dizon said Tuesday that authorities are checking 74 overseas travelers who entered the country from December 22 to January 3 and tested positive for COVID-19 to see if they they acquired the highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus. Their swab samples have been turned over to the Philippine Genome Center and RITM for genome sequencing.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has said that there is still no person in the country infected with the new COVID-19 variant. He also said it will take about a week for local scientists to confirm if a swab sample carried the new variant.

Hong Kong authorities reported Tuesday that a traveler from Manila who entered the city in December carried the new variant.

The DOH previously said that researchers are also studying samples from hospitalized patients who tested positive for COVID-19 in November and December if they were infected with the new variant.

There is also a reported COVID-19 variant in South Africa.

Foreign travelers coming from or with recent travel history from countries with confirmed cases of the new variant will be denied entry in the Philippines, except for accredited diplomats and representatives of international entities such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations. The latter will be allowed entry subject to an RT-PCR test and strict two-week isolation.

Individuals entering the Philippines who received COVID-19 vaccines abroad will still be required to undergo testing and quarantine, Malacañang added.

READ: Current COVID-19 vaccines still effective vs. new variant, says expert