(UPDATED) – The World Health Organization (WHO) said 4 subnational laboratories in the Philippines can begin testing novel coronavirus samples starting Thursday, March 19.
The WHO made the announcement in its sixth situation report on the status of the virus outbreak in the Philippines on Wednesday, March 18.
According to the WHO, the following subnational laboratories "will be operational" to screen samples for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, by Thursday:
The WHO said the laboratory of the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health, whose scientists developed their own coronavirus detection kits, will "soon" be ready for COVID-19 testing as well. (READ: U.P. coronavirus test kits still need gov't validation, no mass use yet)
This means the Philippines will have 5 WHO-accredited centers by Thursday. Since the outbreak began, only the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), the Department of Health's (DOH) research arm based in Muntinlupa, has been testing samples of COVID-19.
The WHO also provided RITM additional supplies of test kits, increasing the laboratory's daily testing capacity from 300 to 450 tests.
This is a welcome development for the Philippines, whose government has been drawing flak for not testing enough of its population for the fast-spreading coronavirus.
But Health Secretary Francisco Duque III clarified on Thursday, March 19, that these 4 subnational laboratories only have around 100 test kits available for now. The health department is working to give them additional test kits as soon as possible.
"What my concentration is now is to ensure that those 4 subnational labs are really operating according to set standards of safety and accuracy of testing. Puwede na silang tumanggap (They can receive samples already), but that depends because of the limited test kits sent to them. One hundred pa lang ang mayroon sila sa ngayon (They only have 100 test kits each right now)," Duque said in a phone interview with Rappler.
The lack of test kits available in the country has forced the DOH officials to prioritize persons under investigation for testing. They are the individuals who are manifesting severe symptoms of COVID-19 and have either traveled to a country with local transmission and have risk of importation of the virus, or have known exposure to a positive case. (READ: When you need to get tested for coronavirus – or not)
Duque said on Monday, March 16, that thousands of additional test kits are also coming in from South Korea and China. But the Philippines may still not have enough trained technicians to run tests and analyze samples.
As of 12 pm on Wednesday, the Philippines has tallied a total of 202 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 17 of which are fatal. Still, 7 patients have already recovered from the disease.
Experts from the DOH and WHO have estimated the novel coronavirus cases in the country could peak to as much as 75,000 in the next 3 months or by June if not properly contained.