Philippines works to expand COVID-19 testing centers outside of capital

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 12 2020 07:03 PM

A technician works in a laboratory for manufacturing testing kits for the new coronavirus at a medical laboratory company Da An Gene Co, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China January 28, 2020. cnsphoto via Reuters

MANILA — The Philippines is developing laboratories outside of the capital that will also be able to test suspected COVID-19 patients who, as of Wednesday, have cumulatively topped the 400-mark since the country began monitoring the novel coronavirus epidemic in late January.

Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo said the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in the Manila suburb of Muntinlupa City, which currently handles all sample testings for the country's COVID-19 patients under investigation (PUIs), is helping "sub-national reference labs" in four different areas get equipped with the same capability.

Personnel of laboratories in the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, the Baguio General Hospital in the northern Philippine province of Benguet, the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City in the central region, and the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City are being trained by the RITM.

“We are also waiting for some private hospitals to apply for accreditation,” Domingo said, noting that some hospitals “signified their intention” to process samples from PUIs since they are capable of running PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests.

“Once they go to RITM for accreditation, they will just check to make sure that all test results (that) will come out of these labs are valid,” he added.

The health department's latest tally show that 408 people have already been looked into across the country for possible COVID-19 contraction, of whom, 238 are confined. So far, three, all Chinese nationals who came from the Chinese city of Wuhan, were confirmed to have acquired the disease, one of whom died on Feb. 1.

Globally, the new coronavirus infection has breached the 44,000-mark, while at least 1,100 fatalities have been reported, as of Wednesday, mostly in China where the virus originated.

Before the Philippines received reagents and primers from Japan that allowed it to confirm COVID-19 infections, it was sending samples to Australia, entailing a longer waiting time for results and limited number of samples for testing.

Domingo said around 80 to 100 samples are being tested per day in the country, while a recent batch of 1,500 reagents sent by the World Health Organization (WHO) should last for two to three weeks.

The WHO representative in the Philippines, Rabindra Abeyasinghe, said the next batch of reagents to be sent to other nations is already on process.

As for the possibility of having a rapid test kit for a faster way of confirming COVID-19 cases, Domingo said that process will still take one to two weeks for validation, according to the WHO.

“Hopefully by next week, there will be one rapid test kit,” he said.

A lot of questions still hound the COVID-19, including its source as the WHO remains unable to prove which animal it originated from.

Abeyasinghe said the body hopes to get more information as 400 international scientists are set to meet this week for the WHO’s first research conference on the COVID-19.

Whether the virus is actually airborne is also uncertain.

“Right now, there is no hard evidence to say it is airborne, that it can float around with the dust,” Domingo said.

The official said that because of the limited supply of face masks in the country, there is no change in the recommendation that only health workers, sick people and those with weak immune systems wear masks.

While other Asian countries like Singapore have reported local transmission of COVID-19, all three confirmed cases in the Philippines are “imported” — people who were infected in China before traveling to the Philippines. But the health department is already preparing for the possibility of local transmission, said Domingo.

With the possibility of developing a vaccine still 18 months away, the country's health department and the WHO reiterated good hygiene practices, such as regular hand washing, for the public.