‘Spectacular fails’ of COVID test
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 1, 2020 - 12:00am

The Department of Health (DOH) was pleased to announce the government will now be able to produce on real-time basis the test results for the 2019 coronavirus, or COVID-19. From the prevailing period of seven to ten days, the turnaround time to release the results of COVID-19 tests will be initially reduced to within 48 to 72 hours. Or this will be two to three days from the time the samples are received from hospitals to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) for final validation.

The bad news is, DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III admitted, the RITM will still have to first clear the backlog of more than 1,000 samples that their laboratories have yet to process whether or not these pending test results are COVID-19 positive or negative cases. An attached agency of the DOH, the RITM in Muntinlupa City is the designated national reference laboratory for COVID-19.

The DOH Secretary, who heads the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging and Infectious Disease (IATF-EID), cited reports submitted to him that the RITM will be able to increase its testing capacity to more than 1,000 per day. That will happen once the additional four sub-national laboratories are able to start conducting their respective full-scale testing. In addition, the DOH released yesterday the list of private hospitals that qualified in the RITM inspection on bio-safety standards for laboratories that will do the COVID-19 testing. The final COVID test results though are still subject to final validation by the RITM. 

In his almost late midnight public address again to the Filipino people Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte noted with satisfaction the report of the IATF-EID on the additional capacity on COVID-19 testing from donations and government procurement.

We are going on the third week of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), or euphemism for “lockdown,” that President Duterte declared all over Metro Manila and the entire Luzon provinces. This is a bid “to flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 contagion in the Philippines. The ECQ, that included local curfew hours to curtail movement of people, started last March 15 and is supposed to end on April 14. 

And as we draw near to the end of the month-long isolation period, rumor mills swirl with speculations of possible extension and expansion of ECQ. It arose following reported cases of COVID-19 infection also erupting in Visayas and in Mindanao provinces via community transmission. Latest COVID-19 positive cases from Visayas and Mindanao have history of travels to Metro Manila and in Luzon. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has frowned upon “lockdown” but is supportive for full scale COVID testing as added measure to better protect the healthy people from this highly contagious flu-like disease.                        

With the supply here in our country of rapid testing-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) continuing to increase, Dr. Edsel Salvana, an infectious disease specialist, is most happy to confirm the lab capacity of the Philippines for doing COVID-19 tests has remarkably improved. Last week, Salvana noted, the RITM was only able to do 300 tests a day. Salvana is the director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institute of Health of the University of the Philippines (NIH-UP) in Manila.

The NIH-UP is one of four sub-national laboratories helping the RITM in its COVID-19 testing. While the COVID-19 was just starting to spread in the Philippines, we met for the first time Dr. Salvana as one of our guests during our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Feb.5. Salvana is not only a doppelganger of ex-senator Bam Aquino but he talks in rapid-fire fashion like him. 

Salvana got into a debate last weekend on his Twitter Account on why DOH had only 2,000 or so patients who have undergone COVID-19 testing, but it reported more than 11,000 COVID-19 tests have already been done by the RITM. For the nth time, he echoed the DOH explanation that this was because a COVID-infected patient undergoes not less than two but three or more tests until confirmed he or she is no longer infectious.  

The raging debate – even as we speak – is on persistent demands raised by certain quarters, especially by some politicians, whether or not the government should undertake “mass testing” for COVID-19, citing cases of people who are asymptomatic, or showing no symptoms but are carriers of this deadly infectious disease. “This is a highly technical process that not only involves having the right machine and kits…Many labs and hospitals HAVE RT-PCR machines but they do not have the biosafety infrastructure,” Salvana pointed out. 

“You CANNOT compromise on safety for expeditiousness. It is a recipe for disaster,” Salvana warned.

Publicly, Salvana has called upon politicians “to refrain from pressuring DOH into doing asymptomatic testing for themselves and their families.” Although he did not name names, obviously many of them earlier came out in media reports. In fact, some of them have been confirmed positive for COVID-19. 

“Please stick to quarantine. There have been some spectacular fails from some of our leaders and this is unacceptable to those of us in the healthcare field who are putting our lives on the line,” Salvana urged.

Himself just about to get out of 14-day self-quarantine, Salvana deplored such “spectacular fails” apparently referring to incidents like those of Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III. The senator claimed he found out too late he was COVID-positive because the results came out ten days after he took the test.

 Or in the case of ACT-CIS partylist Rep. Eric Yap who supposedly tested COVID positive when results came out more than a week after, when he had already attended a meeting with President Duterte at Malacanang. Later it turned out, Yap was negative of COVID infection, but was actually a victim of encoding error purportedly by a volunteer at the RITM.

Ideally, there should be no more “spectacular fails” with the promised real-time release soon of COVID test results.

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