Project Ark head on rapid tests as cause of COVID-19 surge: ‘I beg to disagree totally”
The head of a private sector effort to conduct massive coronavirus testing defended the use of rapid antibody test kits which the medical community tagged as source of false negative results that could have been partly responsible for a surge in coronavirus infections.
Businessman Joey Concepcion, presidential adviser for entrepreneurship, was asked at an online briefing if Project Ark, the private sector campaign for testing, would drop the use of rapid antibody test kits in favor of pooled RT PCR testing, or reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, which detects antigens, or foreign matter including viruses, instead of antibodies in the human body.
“This is a democratic country,” said Concepcion, who spearheaded Project Ark.
“If companies feel comfortable in using antibody test kits and it’s worked for them, they will continue to do it in tandem” with RT-PCR tests, he said.
The question was asked in the context of the open letter of the medical community to President Rodrigo Duterte earlier this month, when they asked to put Greater Metro Manila on modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) from general community quarantine (GCQ) for two weeks.
In the open letter signed by medical groups, the health care professionals cited problems that should be addressed while under MECQ. While Duterte later decided to put Metro Manila, Laguna, Bulacan, Rizal and Cavite on MECQ, the problems were not necessarily addressed yet.
These problems included the use of rapid antibody test kits.
“RT-PCR is now being denied patients with symptoms. LGUs that do test continue to insist on the use of inappropriate rapid antibody tests to identify cases of COVID-19, sending home patients with symptoms who test negative,” the August 1 open letter read.
“This may be responsible for the surge of cases we are now experiencing because rapid tests miss more than half of people with active, contagious illness,” it said.
Concepcion, who has arguably been the most vocal supporter of rapid antibody test kits, defended the testing method. The main cause for the surge, he said, is that only symptomatic patients were tested at first.
“To say rapid test kits are reason for the surge in infection, I beg to disagree totally,” he said at the online briefing.
“The reason is basically we [were] not testing asymptomatic people much earlier. We were only testing symptomatic people,” he said.
Project Ark was named after the messianic ark in the Bible. It began as an initiative wherein companies would volunteer to order rapid antibody test kits for their workers. It is not clear how much was ordered to-date. But as of June, more than 1.2 million kits were ordered.
The project later evolved to include research for pooled RT-PCR testing.
Concepcion said the results of the research, which is being conducted by the Philippine Society of Pathologists, Inc. (PSPI) and Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC), would be announced soon.
Simply put, pooled testing uses the same RT-PCR kit which has been recognized as the gold standard in testing for the virus that causes COVID-19. But instead of testing each person with one kit, a group shares one.
If a positive result comes from a single batch of pooled tests, further individual tests will be made, Project Ark said. The test is designed to be sensitive enough to come up positive when at least one sample in the batch is positive.
Regardless of the testing method of choice, Concepcion, who heads food and beverage company RFM Corp., stressed the importance of testing frequently. RFM Corp. is behind products such as Selecta and Sunkist.
“Like our company, we’re in the food sector. We have to start operating because [in] Christmas, we will be supplying a lot of food to the Filipino people,” he said.
“So from August to December, those plants are running 24 hours 7 days a week,” he said.
“So we can’t afford to shut down because of the infection. So that’s why testing will even go as high as once every week, whether we use antibody testing or pooled PCR,” he said.
“To do pooled PCR on a weekly basis is going to be very difficult. You cannot swab your employees every week. that’s going to be so invasive. So we will do it in combination,” he added.
Minguita Padilla, an eye doctor who heads Project Ark’s medical team, also defended the use of antibody rapid test kits.
“To say it’s totally useless is rather irresponsible. I have to say that categorically because they have their use. What’s important is to know their limitation,” she said.
“It is very unfortunate that recently there was a lot of irresponsible noise about rapid antibody test kits and it created more confusion and fear in a population that was already confused,” she said.
“As the medical head, I have access to a lot of data from various companies and we can tell you now that as long as the companies stuck to the medical protocol, it has helped them use the antibody rapid test kits to open, to stay open, and to have safe working environments,” she added.
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