DOH taking steps to improve genome sequencing as Delta variant threat looms
The building of the Philippine Genome Center at the University of the Philippines-Diliman via Facebook

DOH taking steps to improve genome sequencing as Delta variant threat looms

Christian Deiparine (Philstar.com) - July 20, 2021 - 4:46pm

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines on Tuesday said it is taking steps to improve its detection of COVID-19 variant cases, including a plan to extend its genome sequencing process in Visayas and Mindanao. 

Authorities have acknowledged that the country's capacity to do so is still limited, more than a year into the pandemic and as it braces for the threat of the highly contagious Delta variant. 

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters that countries follow different targets in this process, but the World Health Organization puts it at 5%. 

"We have not attained that yet," she said in Filipino, adding that roughly 1% of total positive samples have only been through genome sequencing.

That poses a challenge for the country as it detects more individuals with the Delta variant. Earlier Tuesday, Vergeire said they reclassified eight recovered Delta cases as active after retests. 

The Philippine Genome Center, for one, could only run 750 samples per week. Still, the health official denied they only saw the need to ramp up genome sequencing capacity recently.

"We have been doing [this] ever since the UK variant became a threat across the globe," she said, reffering to the Alpha variant. "We saw this last December and by January, we were able to plan how we are going to do genome sequencing."

Vergeire said the center has procured additional machines, but it also needs skilled personnel for the efforts, as well as more reagents and resources.

The agency is also eyeing to tap the Visayas and Mindanao campuses of the University of the Philippines to widen its whole genome sequencing process throughout the country, Vergeire said. 

"We will use the UP network," she added. "We're trying to capacitate them right now. The forward plans are there..and hopefully before the year ends we can already expand to these areas."

Making ends meet

Limited capacity means the DOH has to prioritize some areas for genome sequencing. The health official said this is done through purposive sampling. 

Tests are focused on areas with unusually high increase in cases, in places where hospitals are reporting more severe types of COVID-19, in centers of infection, and among returning overseas Filipinos. 

Vergeire said authorities collect more samples from ROFs for genome sequencing. 

"This is because they may be carrying the variants of concern from outside the Philippines," she added in Filipino.

The country has so far reported 35 cases from the Delta variant, but that also goes with acknowledging a limited capacity to detect these infections. 

Vergeire told CNN Philippines earlier that while local transmission has not been confirmed, it's best to "assume there already is" for the public to be more cautious.

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