PH should invest in automated PCR testing to increase COVID-19 detection, help lab workers

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 25 2020 03:21 PM

Barangay Health Workers prepare for another batch of residents to be tested for the severe acute respiratory syndrome- coronavirus-2 (SARs-CoV-2) at the Baclaran Elementary School in Parañque City on May 21, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — Former Philippine health secretary Janette Garin, who is now a legislator, suggested Monday that the government procure or ask for donations of automated machines to help ramp up COVID-19 testing in the country.

Garin said having automated extraction machines would also help ease the job of overworked medical technologists.

“The automated machines are not that expensive,” Garin said during a virtual forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).

Currently, laboratories that do not use automated RNA (ribonucleic acid) extraction machines have laboratory personnel manually extracting genetic material from submitted patient samples. This is required for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, which is the gold standard in COVID-19 testing. 

In a Department of Health briefing last week, an expert explained that manual extraction can take up to 4 hours, especially if the personnel is newly trained. This is among the reasons why PCR testing can take several hours, the experts said. 

Malacañang claimed on Monday that the country has already reached its goal of 30,000 daily testing capacity, but DOH data as of Sunday showed less than 10,000 samples actually tested daily. 

“Donors can actually come into the picture,” Garin said if budget is limited. She said the government should “do away with tedious bureaucratic requirements that drive away the donors.”

Mentioned at the FOCAP forum was the extraction machine donated by the San Miguel Corporation.

Garin said laboratory personnel are “getting drained” because of the overwhelming number of samples that they are made to process. 

“In an automated system, you have much of your consumables already in place,” she said, adding that it also makes the process safer for humans.

“Manual extraction exposes them to the virus. It’s very dangerous,” she said.

Garin explained that an automated machine allows lab personnel to operate the robots in the machine to extract the genetic material, effectively shielding them from exposure to the virus.

Automation would prevent health workers from being overworked and exhausted, which can result in their immune system being compromised, added Dr. Minguita Padilla, who is part of the mass testing initiative Project ARK.

Senator Richard Gordon, who chairs the Philippine Red Cross, credited the use of automated machines in the PRC’s laboratories, which have been testing thousands of samples a day.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters that existing laboratories have been provided with automated extraction machines "which can lessen time for processing of samples by 4 hours per run."

Some of the labs also have additional RT PCR machines, she said.