Break the back of the pandemic

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2021 - 12:00am

In March last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) underscored the importance of testing as the first line of defense against the spread of 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. In fact, it was the WHO that first coined the 3T’s that stood for “testing, testing, testing.” To this end, the WHO also imposed the use of real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR as the “gold standard” for COVID-19 testing.

The RT-PCR testing that the WHO and most doctors prefer isn’t easy on the wallet. At more than P3,000 for the nose and throat swab test, the cost to determine if one is sick wth COVID-19 is too much of a price for wage-earners. It’s especially prohibitive for poor people, especially affecting many third-world and middle income countries like the Philippines. According to latest statistics of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), there are 18 million Filipinos living below the poverty threshold.

Despite such economic constraints, the Philippines is now among the countries in South East Asia that has the highest COVID-testing averaging at 30,000 to 40,000 done each day. This we learned from NEDA acting Secretary Karl Kendric Chua who was our guest at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay last month. Among other Cabinet officials who are members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID), the credit largely goes to designated “testing czar” Vivencio “Vince” Dizon for accomplishing the feat during the past ten months of capacity-building of the government to address the pandemic.

Dizon is also the designated chief coordinator of the Philippine government’s “T-3” that stood for “Test, Trace, Treat” strategy. Concurrently the presidential adviser on flagship projects and programs, Dizon likewise serves as the deputy chief implementer of the National Task Force (NTF) on the National Action Plan Against the COVID-19 pandemic.

As our featured guest in this week’s Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum, Dizon echoed the sentiments of President Rodrigo Duterte on the critical importance of continually upgrading the COVID testing capability of the government under the T-3 program. “Alam mo ang importante pala sa totoo lang, and I realize now, it’s the testing,” President Duterte cited this regular televised address after holding the regular meeting of the IATF held at Malacanang last month. And the reason is something the President himself also acknowledged: “Kasi mahal, I’m trying to figure out a cheaper way of doing it.”

It’s no coincidence that the 18th  Congress approved more than P70 billion for the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines just as the President highlighted the necessity of mass testing. They go hand in hand.

For the Philippines, the good news is there’s a much more affordable but equally accurate alternative to RT-PCR testing using antigen. This only requires the swabbing of the nose, no more need for throat samples. Unlike the 24-hours or so results of RT-PCR, the antigen results come out within 15 minutes after machine reading to detect COVID. There are poor quality antigen tests, too, based on anecdotal evidence showing it being prone to produce false positive, or false negative result of COVID-19 infection.

But there are far better and higher quality antigen tests. More importantly, they’re faster and more affordable. This, we were told during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay Zoom Webinar last Wednesday by mass testing advocates led by Tom Navasero, founder and chief executive officer of LABx Corp., a biotech company which actively develops and designs COVID-19 solutions; and, Dr. Emilio Q.Villanueva III associate professor of pathology at the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital and head of several clinical and molecular laboratories in the country.

Navasero disclosed accurate, faster and more affordable antigen like Sofia 2, FINA and AgILA are already available in the Philippines. All three are based on Fluorescent Immunoassay technology which, in layman’s terms, use powerful lasers in a machine analyzer to detect and measure a subject’s viral load. All have 100% specificity and not prone to human error since a fluorescent analyzer machine reads the results using lasers.

Sofia 2 was the first rapid point-of-care antigen test approved for emergency use by the United States (US) Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in May last year. It was subsequently validated by our own Department of Health (DOH) based on Memorandum Order No. 0468. Sofia 2 and other brands like FINA and AgILA are now being used with confidence like sports organizations in the US that resumed competitions while keeping safe.

Locally, we gathered, antigen tests are also being used by Malacanang and the Presidential Security Group, the House of Representatives, and a number of local government units (LGUs) and private companies. Among the progressive LGUs incorporating antigen tests in their safety protocols are Coron, Busuanga, and El Nido in Palawan, Davao, Zamboanga, Dumaguete, Baguio, Aklan, Tacloban, Quezon, Camarines Sur, and Tarlac.

Navasero presented in our virtual news forum the latest “home test” kit produced LABx Corp. called Corona Antigen Instant Test for 1, or CAI-1 suitable for home use with aid of a licensed medical practitioner via telemedicine. Sold at P500 each, his company sells them through Lazada to prevent mark-up by retailers.

When close to one-fifth of the entire population of the country is scrounging for food as a daily burden, they’re neither inclined nor capable of finding out whether they’re infected with the virus. President Duterte has repeatedly declared in his weekly “address to the people” that he wants every Filipinos to be safe. But with cost of COVID testing too expensive, many could not afford them.

An economist himself, Dizon believes the best means to ensure no one is left behind is through mass testing. Dizon hopes this could finally break the back of our country’s economic problems due to the COVID pandemic.

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