DOH admits PH health care system ‘challenged’ by virus testing demand

Mara Cepeda

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DOH admits PH health care system ‘challenged’ by virus testing demand
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire says this is the reason why it's taking a week or longer for COVID-19 test results to come out

MANILA, Philippines – A senior official from the Department of Health (DOH) admitted the Philippines’ laboratories are currently overwhelmed by the growing demand for novel coronavirus testing.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said they are “being challenged” right now, when asked by the media on Friday, March 20, to confirm reports that test results of several persons under investigation for COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus – have not been released for over a week now.

The DOH previously said test results are supposed to come out within 24 to 48 hours.

“So ‘yun pong nababalita na medyo may delay, totoo po iyon (So those reports that there are some delays, those are true). We are being challenged right now,” Vergeire said in a press briefing at Malacañang.

Vergeire, however, did not specify the extent of the backlog at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Muntinlupa City, the DOH’s research arm which, for the longest time, had been the country’s only accredited laboratory to test COVID-19 specimens. The World Health Organization had said the RITM’s daily capacity right now is at 450 tests.  

In a separate phone interview with Rappler, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III also admitted the delay in the release of results was due to the RITM reconfiguring its laboratory to ensure biohazard safety standards are still met despite the increasing number of specimens it needs to process.

“The biosafety standards should not be breached. They had to stop for a while to reconfigure and make the necessary infectious prevention and control measures. So they needed some time to do that,” Duque said, adding that the RITM is back to its “usual” operations this week.

According to Vergeire, the DOH has started sending more testing kits to 5 subnational laboratories across the country so they can test more COVID-19 samples.

These include Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center in Baguio City, San Lazaro Hospital in Manila City, Lung Center of the Philippines in Quezon City, Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City, and Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City. 

The DOH is also in talks with 5 big hospitals in Metro Manila to assess if they have facilities to augment the country’s severely lacking testing capacity. 

Local government units in the provinces are now battling COVID-19 with a blind eye due to a shortage of test kits. In the Davao Region, for example, 3 persons under investigation died before the RITM could even release their results. 

Vergeire said on Friday, however, that the DOH finds no need to do mass testing of the general population for now. 

As of 12 pm on Thursday, March 19, the Philippines has reported a total of 217 cases of COVID-19, 17 of which are fatal. Eight patients have recovered, so far. – 

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.