SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 28, 2020 - 12:00am

Maybe it’s that nip in the air (perceptible only to us Christmas-crazy folks) as the so-called ’ber months approach.

After months of being the prophet of doom, University of the Philippines mathematics professor Guido David had a heartening message on Wednesday night: finally, the COVID curve in our country is flattening. Really.

Just to manage expectations, what this means is that coronavirus disease 2019 is still very much around, but transmission of the COVID-causing SARS-coronavirus-2 is slowing down.

Even the data provided by the government, on which this assessment is based, has improved in accuracy, David told “The Chiefs” last Wednesday night on OneNews / TV 5.

David has become one of the most recognizable personalities in this pandemic, being part of UP Diliman’s OCTA Research, which has been crunching the numbers on the COVID contagion nationwide since the start of this catastrophic pandemic.

He says his colleague, UP political science professor Ranjit Rye, is usually more “conservative” in COVID assessments and projections. But in this case, Rye will probably agree with David and allow for a bit of optimism as we approach the season of Jose Mari Chan.

Both professors, together with another OCTA member, Father Nicanor Austriaco of the University of Santo Tomas, will surely be one in cautioning against complacency in observing COVID health protocols.

Even Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, one of the highly visible officials in this pandemic, also issued similar cautionary statements.

The important thing, David told us, is to sustain the momentum of what we have been doing, which led to the flattening of the curve.

*      *      *

We hang on to every piece of good news as analysts from various investment houses warn that the Philippines will struggle with one of the slowest recoveries from the pandemic in Southeast Asia.

One report cited the difficulty of following health protocols in crowded slums, and the lack of local capacity to produce our own COVID vaccine.

The World Health Organization may warn against “vaccine nationalism,” but it’s unavoidable in this health crisis: countries that produce safe and effective vaccines will give priority to their own people.

To improve our chances of getting ahead of the line, our recourse is participation in clinical trials being conducted by foreign governments and private laboratories.

I’ve written about the dangers of serving as a guinea pig for drug development, and the Dengvaxia controversy is still fresh in our minds. But beggars can’t be choosers.

A relatively safe and effective vaccine is still several months away. Professor David sees more promise for flattening the curve in the COVID saliva test developed by an Israeli company, with a similar one developed in the United States.

*      *      *

Sen. Richard Gordon, who chairs the Philippine Red Cross, told The Chiefs that the PRC is getting the saliva test kits from both Israel and the US. Go Negosyo’s Joey Concepcion, also presidential adviser on entrepreneurship, is also reportedly procuring the saliva kits.

Gordon may have to recheck pricing. He mentioned a possible saliva testing price of P400 to about P700. That’s less than half the price of the cheapest “gold standard” swab polymerase chain reaction test available (the locally made GenAmplify of Manila HealthTek). But it’s way above the reported price per saliva test in Israel: 25 US centavos, or about P12. Even if you add the importation fees, logistics and storage costs, personnel expenses for the frontliners who will administer the tests, plus reasonable profits all around, I’m sure P400 can still be pulled down. The operative word is “reasonable.”

When this story broke recently, there was a silly observation (probably from folks whose COVID testing business was threatened) that the saliva test had proved inaccurate because ingested food contaminated the sample. Maybe the test was taken with the mouth full, or with no prior mouth rinsing.

Gordon told us that the Israelis are receptive to the Red Cross order. So we could soon see the arrival of the saliva test. There’s no pain or discomfort, the 95 percent accuracy is higher than the swab test and, most importantly, the result is known in less than a second.

*      *      *

David acknowledges that the test – if enough kits become available – can become a game changer in flattening the curve.

People want to stay healthy and will readily be tested. We saw this in the long lines for free drive-through testing provided by the city government of Manila. But that was RAT – rapid antibody test – with only 20 percent accuracy, according to the Philippine General Hospital, which has dropped the test as a screening tool for COVID.

From what I’ve read about the Israeli test, it can be done safely and accurately even at home, if the household is willing to invest about $200 in the artificial intelligence-based spectral device that can fit in the hand, plus the minimal cost of the specimen tubes.

If accurate COVID testing can be done almost as easily as a temperature scan, at an affordable price, coronavirus detection, contact tracing and isolation become much easier.

Combined with the continued observance of minimum health protocols – physical distancing, wearing of face mask and shield, disinfection and regular hand washing – we might yet significantly curb COVID transmission.

Professor David says OCTA Research projections don’t go too far, but yes, he says, he won’t rule out an easing of the crisis with the start of the ’ber months.

The carols of Jose Mari Chan can then bring us cheer rather than sadness. And we might yet have a merry Christmas.

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