MANILA — There are now more than 75,000 people infected with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), with cases appearing in countries outside of China.
Amid reported new infections across the globe, the Philippines has confirmed three cases so far, the last on Feb. 5, all travelers from the Chinese city of Wuhan, epicenter of the virus.
Could the relatively low number of infections in the country be attributed to the travel ban on China?
The World Health Organization said that is a possibility.
“It appears that it was effective but it might be too early to comment on that,” WHO Representative in the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe told reporters on Friday.
Abeyasinghe earlier said the WHO does not recommend travel restrictions because they “cause more social and economic disruption and (are) less effective as a means of controlling outbreaks.”
He emphasized, however, that while it might be effective, it is still hard to be sure for now. The Department of Health has also been cautious, saying the country should not be complacent when it comes to the spread of the disease.
As early as the last week of January, countries started restricting travel to China. The Philippines followed suit on February 2, banning travelers from China and its special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau.
The country's three confirmed cases of COVID-19 were travelers from Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease, who arrived in the country before the borders were closed. Of the three, one died, while the two others have fully recovered and were discharged from hospital.
Of the more than 500 people who are considered “patients under investigation” by the Philippine government for being at risk for COVID-19, none except the three Chinese nationals have so far tested positive for the disease.
The situation in other countries is improving, as well.
“The cases inside China including Wuhan and Hubei continue to show clear downward trend,” Abeyasinghe said.
“Although we’ve seen continuing numbers of high deaths largely from Wuhan… Outside of Wuhan the number of deaths is declining.”
The WHO official attributes this to “control measures” in China.
He said that while countries like Singapore, South Korea and Japan have identified “clusters” of infected people within their respective countries, such discoveries are “helpful in the containment efforts.”
He also pointed out that the increased number of infected people outside China is due to the Diamond Princess cruise ship that is currently docked in Japan.
Abeyasinghe said they consider quarantine measures implemented within the cruise ship as successful, at least in the case of the passengers.
Of the 3,200 passengers, more than 600 people have already tested positive for COVID-19. Most are crew members, including more than 50 Filipinos.
In recent weeks, there has been pushback from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) on the travel ban. The restriction has since been lifted for Taiwan while government has also allowed Filipino migrants who had come home to return to Hong Kong and Macau.
Health Assistant Secretary for Public Health Services Maria Rosario Vergeire said the inter-agency task force monitoring the spread of COVID-19 is regularly assessing the travel restrictions.
“For these other countries with local transmission, we are studying them,” she said, referring to Singapore and other countries that have increasing numbers of infected patients. “There is a matrix that is used to determine as much as possible scientifically…the burden of infection of those countries and other relevant criterion.”
While the Philippines has yet to have cases of local transmission or patients without travel history who contracted the disease, the Department of Health said it is preparing for that possibility.
The WHO also continues to supply the Philippines with PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test kits to check for COVID-19 cases. Abeyasinghe said they turned over 2,000 kits to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine on Thursday.