DOH pressed to expand, speed up virus testing

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Senators and one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic advisers on Friday expressed frustration over the slow and small number of people being tested by the Department of Health (DOH) for the new coronavirus disease around the country which they believe could undermine efforts to stop the COVID-19 outbreak.

Business leader Joey Concepcion, the presidential adviser for entrepreneurship, said the lockdown imposed on Luzon to curb the spread of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the severe acute respiratory ailment, had already brought down confidence among many businessmen.

He said the “main objective right now is … how do we eventually restore confidence.”

Some employers were having difficulty urging their employees back to work since people were afraid of catching the virus, he said.

Others tried to remedy the situation by providing temporary workers’ quarters and transportation.

Visibility is key

But some businesses were running out of working capital after paying the salaries of the affected employees, Concepcion said.

“The key element here in [this] warfare, as we’re challenging this virus to win the war, [is] you have to have visibility,” he said.

He was referring to getting a clearer picture of the extent of the contagion which could only be drawn by more tests results.

“I hope that the DOH and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) would see that testing is really important. Testing will give us visibility and right now the numbers, to me, are not stated correctly,” Concepcion said.

He said he has raised the need for more testing kits and testing centers with the DOH and the FDA.

The DOH reported it had tested only 2,147 people nationwide as of Friday and 791 were negative for the virus. There are 803 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, including 54 who have died and 31 who have recovered.

There are also more than 744 persons under investigation and over 6,300 under monitoring for possible infection.

Concepcion urged the DOH to test all of them “frequently, every other day … and then hopefully the results come out.”

He said the speed with which the DOH got the results would be the main challenge in mass testing and suggested getting more hospitals and private clinics to help.

Legal cover

Sen. Joel Villanueva said the law rushed by Congress to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, Republic Act No. 11469, already contained provisions that could be used to conduct mass testing.

“They now have a legal cover. What are they waiting for?” he lamented. “We have to act fast. Time is not on our side.”

Sen. Panfilo Lacson reminded Health Secretary Francisco Duque III that the law mandated state agencies such as the DOH to “undertake the procurement” of personal protective equipment for health workers, test kits and other medical needs.

The health chief seemed to be “clueless” about the situation when he argued that “no country would be able to do mass testing to the extent of the population” of the Philippines, Lacson said.

“(Duque) does not know what he’s talking about. When we say mass testing, we do not refer to all the 100 million Filipinos,” he said.

“It’s only those over 60 years old, who constitute not even 10 percent of the entire population, those who were exposed (to COVID-19 patients) and those with symptoms,” Lacson said.

He warned that if the DOH “does not change its way of handling the crisis, I hate to say, we may be overrun by COVID-19 faster than we can imagine.”

DOH rejects calls

Duque on Thursday again rejected calls for massive testing, which was done by South Korea, China, Singapore and other countries to curb the transmission of the highly communicable disease.

“We have to rationalize [and] prioritize those who belong to the vulnerable sector—the elderly and those with underlying conditions,” Duque said.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said Duque “should strictly follow the spirit of the law, specially on mass testing.”

In a handwritten statement from her detention cell at Camp Crame, Sen. Leila de Lima said the importance of mass testing “cannot be overemphasized.”

“This lack of urgency in an emergency situation will kill us all,” she said. “The worst is yet to come if we do not act decisively and swiftly for our own people, now.”

The DOH on Friday indicated that it was working toward testing even more people, saying it was assessing the capacity of at least 30 more laboratories, which have signified their desire to be part of a network of private and government testing centers around the country.

“Hopefully, they would be able to start [testing] in the coming days,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.

She did not say where the 30 were located.

Testing centers

The DOH earlier said four private and two public hospitals with laboratories were being considered to become testing centers.

These are St. Luke’s Medical Center Quezon City, St. Luke’s Medical Center Bonifacio Global City, Makati Medical Center, The Medical City, Western Visayas Medical Center and the Bicol Public Health Laboratory.

“We are regulating the laboratories because the [testing] process for COVID-19 is very risky. It has biosafety risks. All of the specimens collected are live viruses. If there are no regulatory measures for the laboratories, this may start an epidemic in the laboratory and spread to the community,” Vergeire said.

On Thursday, the DOH halted the operation of Marikina City’s testing laboratory, which was on the sixth floor of the city health office building.

It said the laboratory “needs further enhancement and improvement to adhere with the existing standards for biosafety and biosecurity” and had to be separated from the building to reduce the risk of cross infection.

Apart from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), there are currently five laboratories that could test for infection from SARS-CoV-2—San Lazaro Hospital and Lung Center of the Philippines in Metro Manila; Baguio General Hospital; Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City; and the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City.

Each of these subnational laboratories had been given 5,000 test kits. At RITM, test results are released within 24 hours to 48 hours, but due to a recent surge in the cases, it could take up to seven days.

The country now has 15 test kits approved by the FDA. One of the most recent, Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV-2, can be operated using the GeneXpert machine that is used to test for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, which is available in many hospitals in the country, making testing by more hospitals possible.

But the test cartridge used specifically for the new coronavirus won’t be available before May, according to FDA Director General Eric Domingo.

The bulk of the supply is being used in the United States, which has nearly 86,000 cases, now the most numerous worldwide, he told the Inquirer.

Domingo said negotiations were ongoing for an earlier delivery date.