Still struggling to contain the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19, the Philippines has recorded its first case of the Lambda variant of the virus, health authorities reported on August 15.

First detected in Peru in December, the World Health Organisation (WHO) named it Lambda and classified it as a “variant of interest” (VoI) on June 14 after laboratory studies showed it had mutations that resisted antibodies created by vaccines.

The country’s first case of the Lambda variant was detected by the University of the Philippines-Philippine Genome Center out of the 373 random Covid-19 cases analysed on August 12.

The Department of Health (DoH) said it was still checking the background of the Lambda case, noting only that it involved a 35-year-old woman who was asymptomatic and considered recovered after undergoing a 10-day isolation.

“This VoI has the potential to affect the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 and is currently being monitored for its possible clinical significance,” the DoH said.

All viruses, including the one causing Covid-19, mutate over time. While most changes have little to no impact on the virus’ properties, the WHO said some mutations affect how easily it spreads, the severity of the diseases it induces, or the performance of vaccines, among other things.

Late last year, the WHO said the emergence of variants that posed an increased risk to global public health prompted the naming of VoIs and variants of concern in order to prioritise global monitoring and research and the appropriate response.

The DoH reminded the public that the minimum public health standards and getting vaccinated were still the best defence against Covid-19 and any of its variants.

“Everyone should remember to wear their masks properly, wash their hands, observe physical distancing and ensure proper ventilation whenever they are indoors,” it added.

Of the random cases analysed on August 12, nearly half or 182 were found to be of the Delta variant, which was first detected in India and is fuelling renewed Covid-19 surges worldwide.

Another 18 per cent or 66 cases were of the Beta variant, first detected in South Africa, while 11 per cent or 41 cases were of the Alpha variant, which is believed to have originated in the UK.

These three mutations of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus were considered “variants of concern” since they were very transmissible and had indications that they could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.

Since last month when the first local cases of the Delta variant were detected in the country, 807 Delta variant cases have been detected out of around 3,000 random Covid-19 samples analysed.

On August 15, the DoH reported 14,749 more Covid-19 cases, the country’s second-highest daily count since the pandemic started. The country’s highest daily tally was 15,310 recorded on April 2.

With more than 12,000 cases confirmed daily for the fifth consecutive day, the total caseload now stood at 1,741,616.

The DoH also reported that 270 more people succumbed to the coronavirus disease, including 141 previously tagged as recovered, bringing total deaths to 30,340.

Meanwhile, 10,720 more patients were declared recovered, bringing total recoveries to 1,608,528.

There were 102,748 people still infected with the virus, the highest number of active cases since April 23.

The DoH reported a 23.5 per cent positivity rate out of the 59,857 people who were tested for the virus last August 13.

The surging cases have led to calls for an extension of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, but National Task Force Against Covid-19 Chief Implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr said it was premature at this point to decide whether or not to extend the lockdown meant to stop the spread of the Delta variant.

Speaking at the arrival of 469,200 Moderna vaccines on the afternoon of August 15, Galvez said experts were discussing and might bring up the issue during August 16’s meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte.

A former adviser to the government’s pandemic response favoured a longer lockdown as numbers showed a sustained transmission of the virus.

However, Dr Tony Leachon on August 15 said only a “genuine” ECQ, coupled with increased testing, tracing and vaccination, could preserve the healthcare system, which was his most important reason for supporting an extension of the ECQ beyond August 20.

Leachon replied to a public tweet of Octa Research fellow Guido David on August 15, pointing out the 1.9 reproduction number in the National Capital Region (NCR).

Indicating the average number of people that an infected person would pass on a virus to, this meant an individual would spread Covid-19 to 1.9 others. Health experts said a value higher than one was considered dangerous because the number of cases would keep increasing, while a lower number meant the virus would eventually stop spreading because not enough new people were being infected to sustain an outbreak.

According to the independent monitor Octa Research, Metro Manila’s reproduction number was 1.85 on August 14 and 1.78 on August 12.

David also said that NCR’s hospital bed occupancy was now at 64 per cent, while intensive care utilisation was at 71 per cent, “the first time since May 5”.

Infectious diseases specialist and government adviser Dr Edsel Salvana also refused to pre-empt the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, which meets every so often to determine the quarantine classification.

But Salvana, who earlier criticised Octa Research’s methods, said reproduction rate was not a good measure of the current case trend.

“We are looking at other parameters to monitor the rise (of cases), most especially [emergency room] waiting times and ICU capacities,” he said in a text message.

In its August 15 report, Octa Research said seven provinces had reached more than 70 per cent health-care utilisation namely Cebu, Cavite, Laguna, Pampanga, Batangas, Misamis Oriental and Cagayan.