Filipino scientists call on government to conduct mass testing for coronavirus

Nicolas Czar Antonio

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Filipino scientists call on government to conduct mass testing for coronavirus
The group Scientists Unite Against COVID-19 is building a database of laboratories with qPCR machines, which can be used to process coronavirus samples

MANILA, Philippines – An alliance of more than 1,000 biologists, health experts, and other concerned individuals as well as 336 organizations in the Philippines have launched a petition calling on the national government to start mass testing for coronavirus. 

In the petition released Friday, March 20, the group Scientists Unite Against COVID-19 said that, in addition to physical distancing and quarantine measures, widespread testing is also key in containing the spread of the coronavirus. (READ: Without test kits, provinces, cities fighting blindly against coronavirus)

The group is also building a database of laboratories with qPCR machines, which can be used to test coronavirus samples.

Scientists Unite Against COVID-19, led by several University of the Philippines (UP) molecular biologists, echoed the call of the World Health Organization (WHO) for countries to “test, test, test.” 

They emphasized that mass testing would give the government a clearer picture of the extent of the infections in the country and respond accordingly.

They added that by decentralizing testing from major hospitals to laboratories across different areas, the Philippines would be able to spot and contain localized outbreaks in communities around the country.

Testing will also help find asymptomatic carriers who need to be isolated (READ: WHO says ‘aggressive’ action needed in Southeast Asia to stop virus)

“Not only is mass testing a crucial public health measure; we can curb collective anxiety brought about by the fact that we are blindly fighting an unseen enemy and affirm the right of all Filipinos to be treated equitably in access to diagnosis,” the group said

“We need to increase our national testing capacity to facilitate decentralized, expanded testing across the Philippines,” they added.

The Philippines’ testing capacity is 950 to 1,000 tests per day. A bulk of that is done by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Muntinlupa City, which can perform an average of 600 tests per day.

Until Thursday, March 19, the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine was the sole laboratory in the country accredited by the World Health Organization (WHO) to screen novel coronavirus samples. (READ: Where are testing centers for coronavirus in PH?)

WHO has since allowed 4 other laboratories in the country to start coronavirus testing. These can be found in San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center, Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City, and Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City. However, these centers have yet to achieve their full testing capacity, according to the scientists.

The government has also procured thousands of coronavirus test kits from South Korea and China, which will be used in parallel with the ones developed by the University of the Philippines (UP) National Institutes of Health.

The UP-developed test kit is still undergoing field validation to see if it can match the accuracy of other detection methods. The locally-made kit can reportedly screen samples in under two hours and will be 6 times cheaper than its foreign counterparts. 

“But test kits are only one part of the equation,” UP molecular biologist Joshua Danac told Rappler. “We also need more testing centers and more personnel to do the tests so that we can get results more quickly.”

To augment this, the scientists is building a database of laboratories with qPCR machines.

“Even though there are limited hospitals in the country with a qPCR machine, research labs across the country actually have the same qPCR equipment, and many of them – like my own – are sitting idle right now in the wake of the lockdown. If we can mobilize the resources from our research labs, each additional qPCR machine would greatly increase our testing capacity,” said Danac.

“Our healthcare system is already heavily burdened as it is. We can mobilize our research sector to help alleviate some of that burden by augmenting the testing capacity,” Danac added.

The group also offered a list of volunteers with the necessary skills to operate qPCR machines.

Meanwhile, the DOH said the Philippines still would not implement mass testing for coronavirus, even as the country received more than 100,000 new test kits from China, South Korea, and Brunei, and despite the steady rise of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country.

As of Sunday, March 22, the Philippines has already reported 380 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 25 fatalities – which experts think might be a far cry from the true picture due to the lack of testing. (READ: [ANALYSIS] Coronavirus cases in PH could reach 26,000 by end-March if random spread not contained)

 “Each day we delay, more cases go undetected, and more people may die,” the scientists concluded.

Scientists Unite Against COVID-19 is building a database of laboratories with qPCR machines and other necessary equipment needed for coronavirus testing in the Philippines, as well as volunteers who have experience or training handling the machines. Those interested to support their call may fill out this form.

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