Meet the doctor whose daily COVID updates are followed by the country’s most influential 2
Dr. Benjamin Co on interpreting COVID data: “I like it when the data is accurate. It provides me a safe zone of being able to predict outcomes."
Culture

Meet the doctor whose daily COVID updates are followed by the country’s most influential

He updates us daily on our COVID stats and what they mean in terms of where we are in flattening the curve. But who is Dr. Benjamin Co? By RHIA DIOMAMPO-GRANA
ANCX | May 19 2020

Ever since he was young, Dr. Benjamin Co—the infectious diseases and clinical pharmacology expert whose COVID-19 updates you read daily on ANCX—had always been into Math.

“[My love for Math] just came naturally. I really like numbers. It’s my world!” he says over Zoom. The topic obviously gives the 61-year old a sense of thrill and excitement. “I love to tinker with data,” he says. “It’s always been a passion of mine.”

In grade school and high school, while his classmates would get help from tutors, he would typically on his own get a 98 or 99 in Math exams. “Ako yung walang ka-effort effort! Maybe there are some things that are innate to us. And for me, Math is one of them,” he quips.

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Dr. Co initially enrolled in a B.S. Biology course because his parents wanted him to be a doctor. But his love for numbers prevailed, and he ended up shifting to BS Mathematics. He eventually finished a degree in Medicine, thanks to the prodding of his businessman father—on the condition that the latter would support his Master’s Degree in Applied Mathematics when he takes them during the summer.

The young Benjamin then took his residency at the University of Santo Tomas, followed by an internship at the V. Luna Hospital, where he was recognized Most Outstanding Intern. “I don’t know why they gave me that award. Perhaps because I do everything with a passion. If they tell me to stay three days, I’d stay for three days. If they say, ‘watch the patient for 96 hours,’ I’d do that, too,” he recalls.

Meet the doctor whose daily COVID updates are followed by the country’s most influential 3
Seeing newborn twins at his clinic in Asian Hospital.

He initially wanted to go into obstetrics but standing up for a caesarean section for a long time was not the most appealing scenario in his head. “Nakatayo ka ng pagkatagal-tagal tapos magbabantay ka pa ng manganganak”—so he decided to go into pediatrics instead.

“I like kids. To me, there’s a lot of hope in kids,” he says wistfully. He has that aura of kindness many doctors have. “Children kasi to me are a symbol of resilience. They survive everything and anything. A lot of people think that adulthood is the most difficult. No it’s not, its childhood. You have to go through those pains in growing. We think that we just give the kids everything. No, they have more challenges in life. And they are a symbol of hope because they are very resilient.”

After his residency, he went to the United States to study, through a scholarship grant from the UST Medical Alumni Association. The university was then in need of someone with a background in clinical and molecular pharmacology, so when Dr. Co noticed nobody was interested in going through the advanced training for clinical and molecular pharmacology—“probably because there’s no money, unless you work in the US”—he agreed to take it for two years, and then came home to practice.

“Molecular pharmacology is a study that deals with everything about drugs—from the stage of drug development to its application in the clinics, the regulatory processes in between, all the clinical trials that are involved, even up to adverse events, side effects, how they get to the market, and so on, and so forth,” he explains.

Meet the doctor whose daily COVID updates are followed by the country’s most influential 4
With DOH Secretary Francisco Duque and former FDA chief Nela Charade Puno (third and fourth from left)

Discovering the joys of writing

His flair for writing was developed in college, when he became a member of The Varsitarian, the official student publication of UST. He admits that he did it as a sideline—“kasi ang mahal maging duktor.”

During his time in Varsi, the paper was under the school administration. “They gave allowances to the staff and there was a reduction in the tuition fee depending on your position in the student organ. So if you are the editor-in-chief, you get 100% discount from your tuition. So parang full scholar ka,” he recalls.

It was through the paper that he got his basic training in writing, and honed his interest in words. Years later, this would eventually manifest in a blog called “Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell.” He explains the name of choice: “I think because the world is always that—divided into happiness, sometimes too much loneliness, and there’s always the in-between.” In this first blog, he put down all his musings—“whatever made me happy, whatever made me sad, and the everyday life.”

He stopped blogging when he joined the government. He worked at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2016 to 2018—as a consultant for six months, and as the director for the Center for Drug Regulation and Research for one year and four months. “I did not think it was appropriate to write things against the government when I work for the government—kasi sometimes I’d be critical when I write.”

Meet the doctor whose daily COVID updates are followed by the country’s most influential 5
Being sworn in by Sec. Paulyn Ubial as Director IV of FDA's Center for Drug Regulation and Research

When he left his government stint, he migrated to a new blog called “Relative Joy”—a conscious decision to “shift to something that will provide a little impetus for kindness.”

“For one year I wrote daily, to remind me that we only have today, life is good, and we just have to be kind. It serves as reminder for me to come up with thoughtful things,” he shares. “If you read the rest of my posts, they’re all about kindness. They’re all about love, and just being kind to people. Then COVID came into the picture.”

In his first COVID article titled “Pandemonium,” he just wanted people to be aware of the novel coronavirus. “It was like an FYI to the public. I gave a briefing on what the problem is regarding this virus and why we should be aware about it. I didn’t realize it would extend this way,” he says. 

Now, his COVID-19 updates are being followed by doctors and epidemiologists in different parts of the world, and his ANCX columns are passed on in exclusive Viber groups.

 

What the stats tell us

The motivation to religiously follow the COVID-19 developments sprung from his love of tinkering with data. “I like it when the data is accurate. It provides me a safe zone of being able to predict outcomes. I use data analytics also when I treat my patients. If I know the parameters—I know na ito ang blood count mo, ito yung mga ibang laboratory test results mo—alam ko kung kailan ka gagaling. If you’re not getting better, when you should have responded [to medications], something else must be wrong. It’s the same thing when you look at a pandemic. I always say: Good data saves lives. Bad data kills,” he stresses. Thus, when notices an irregularity, he doesn't hesitate to call out the government's attention.

Meet the doctor whose daily COVID updates are followed by the country’s most influential 6
Dr. Co is an active consultant at the Asian Hospital, UST Hospital, and Cardinal Santos Hospital

Tracking the local COVID situation since January, the doctor has some daunting realizations. “Looking at the figures, we’re not handling the situation well. Decision-making should be based on solid data,” he points out. “But if you get data like ours—those up-and-down swings you see in an ECG (electrocardiogram)—it’s like you have a patient who has a ventricular tachycardia (a fast, abnormal heart rate), pwedeng mamatay ang pasyente. These data form the basis for policies, whether it’s ECQ, GCQ, dole-outs, how long you will keep the people in their homes. Should you do this? What is the best strategy? Bad data is when they say, oh we’re doing a little better now. Our curve has flattened. E kahit anong gawin ko, hindi ko nakita na nag-flatten yung curve.”

The infectious diseases specialist also underscores the importance of testing and contact tracing to contain the spread of the virus. “Do we even do enough contact tracing?” he asks. “What you want to do is identify the person who has the infection, who he or she came in contact with, and find out if they are positive of COVID or not. Kasi if they are positive, then you have to isolate them. Ihiwalay mo na yung mga positive. Kasi pag nahiwalay mo na yung mga positive patients, then yung mga hindi pa nagkakaroon, yung mga negative, at least, hindi sila magkakasakit.”

“What we’re doing now is we’re only testing the tip of the pyramid. Kasi limited daw ang testing kits. Yung mga may sakit lang talaga ang tini-test natin. Pag ginawa mo yun, at yung mga may malala lang, yung mga nasa ospital, yung mga may sintomas na, yung mga severe lang ang ite-test mo, mataas ang death rate mo. Mataas ang mortality. But look at Cebu’s mortality rate, it’s less than 1%. [As of data last May 13] they have almost 2,000 cases but only have nine deaths,” he notes

“I don’t advocate mass testing on everybody kasi that’s not economically feasible. What I’m saying is if you find one, then you start doing contact tracing,” he suggests.

Meet the doctor whose daily COVID updates are followed by the country’s most influential 7
Traveling with his mom last year after her colon surgery.

Asked what he hopes to do, post pandemic, the doctor answers bluntly: “I don’t know if there will be a post pandemic. And I don’t know when this will end. But I would love to take a personal vacation with my partner. We go out twice a year just to unload and get de-stressed. But we’re stuck with this.”

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying time with his mom, who is 83 and had colon surgery last year. “At least we’re able to spend quality time together. She looks forward to my coming home. Unlike noon, pre-pandemic, she barely sees me because of hospital work. [He’s an active consultant at the Asian Hospital, UST Hospital and Cardinal Santos Hospital and holds key administrative positions in each.] I get back just in time for dinner. Now she sees me more often. So it’s a chance to bond together.”

Meet the doctor whose daily COVID updates are followed by the country’s most influential 8
With his family in Tokyo in 2019 

The self-confessed nerd spends his leisure time with books—from Stephen King to self-help titles. And he has also recently discovered the world of Korean Dramas. He’s a big fan of Crash Landing On You and it’s lead actor, Hyun Bin. “Kahit na mahawakan ko lang yung kanyang damit, I would be forever grateful,” Dr. Co reveals. “Hotel del Luna, Itaewon Class, The King, si Lee Min Ho—I have watched them all.” He also plays the piano, loves classical music and loves to cook. 

Life is still good. At the end of the day, even in this time of a pandemic, Dr. Benjamin Co gets to write, one of his favorite things to do — which is good for him. Plus, he gets to tinker with data, make sense of the most relevant numbers of this day and age — which is good for him but mostly good for us.