Can you return to work once restrictions of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon are relaxed?
Many of the Philippines’ biggest corporations are now mapping out procedures to determine which of their employees can and cannot return to work when more businesses are allowed to operate. The decision will rely heavily on rapid antibody tests, said Joey Concepcion, Presidential Adviser on Entrepreneurship.
“Most conglomerates are in”
Concepcion said RFM Corporation, where he serves as CEO, has already ordered the testing kits.” The moment it arrives, we will test our employees,” he said.
“There are many other companies, almost everybody is going to do it (rapid antibody tests) because they want to be sure the employees that are sick do not infect other people,” Concepcion said. “Most of the conglomerates are in.”
Ayala Corporation, San Miguel Corporation, and ride-sharing and delivery company ANGKAS also confirmed to ABS-CBN that it will undertake rapid antibody testing of employees, but declined to provide details for now. “I’m told Ayala Corporation brought in 50,000 testing kits,” Concepcion said.
Finger-prick blood test
The rapid antibody tests, also known as serology tests, can detect the presence of antibodies Immunoglobulin M (IgM) and Immunoglobulin G (IgG), explained health advocate Dr. Minguita Padilla. It can be done through a finger-prick blood test by a nurse or lab technician under supervision of a doctor. Padilla was among several physicians consulted by Concepcion when he prepared his presentation to President Rodrigo Duterte on rapid antibody testing.
An IgM positive result means the person is infected, must immediately be isolated, and take a confirmatory Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, Padilla said.
An IgG positive result means the person was previously infected.
“That person now has immunity to the infection. How long it will it last? We’re not sure--one, two, three years--it’s a new virus so we’re not sure,” Padilla said. “But based on theory, it should last. And the people who test positive for IgG can now go out to restart the economy or go back to the office with less fear that they will get sick."
Padilla added that companies must continue to enforce social distancing among employees and encourage frequent hand washing at work.
The test kits are priced differently but as far as Padilla knows, each kit is P750 on average.
The country’s Food and Drug Administration has approved 16 Rapid Antibody Test kits for commercial use as of April 16, 2020.
Elsewhere in the world, countries like Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy are considering “immunity passports” for those who test positive for IgG. But the reliability of rapid antibody test kits is the subject of intense debate, because for one, test kits are being manufactured in different parts of the world using varying standards.
Concepcion is well aware of the skepticism surrounding rapid antibody test kits, yet he said he would rather have something than nothing.
“It’s the best thing we have in a situation like this. Yes, you may get a false negative or false positive result. But I’d rather have something than nothing. Besides there are always protocols. If an employee is IgG positive and IgM negative, then that gives me peace of mind. But if the employee is IgG negative and IgM positive, that means he has the virus and he has to be isolated and take a confirmatory PCR test.”
Concepcion said companies will not be compelled to undertake rapid antibody testing of employees. If a company chooses to do so, it will shoulder the expense for testing.
But what if a company decides to test, and an employee refuses to be tested?
“Nobody can force anybody, even an employee, I have to check the labor rules,” Concepcion said. “For now, I think he can go to work. Then again we would be concerned, why won’t he do the test? We’re also asking them to do it for their family’s safety.”
Concepcion said the private sector is also being encouraged to adopt a barangay in the area where they operate and undertake rapid antibody testing of a sample size to help government collect data on the spread of infection.
But getting the private sector involved does not seem to be a problem. The bigger challenge is procuring reliable test kits, as some countries have already begun to hoard them.
“We are competing for these kits with the rest of the world,” Padilla said.