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In the middle of the global health crisis, we should think about the vital role of testing innovation. This can lead us to explore better methods and technologies which can be performed in a variety of settings to meet our diverse needs.
Innovations in testing strategies are necessary to fight COVID-19. It is important that we innovate and adapt our containment strategies as the situation continues to evolve and as we uncover new information about the virus.
Since the outbreak started, I have sought to bring together the private sector and have advocated for targeted mass testing. I believe that this is the only way we can trace, isolate, and treat patients whether they are asymptomatic or symptomatic.
We have to innovate and try as many viable testing strategies as possible. Since day one, we in the private sector have pursued innovations in testing. We have gone through different types already such as the rapid antibody test, RT-PCR test, and now pooled swab testing. Maybe soon, we will explore and replicate successful models being done in other countries, such as the antigen test and saliva test which are new diagnostic tests designed for rapid detection of COVID-19 infection.
In the beginning, rapid antibody test kits were our only available weapon and best option to help map out the spread of infection and help our healthcare facilities. We had to make the most of what we had, but remained open to alternative testing strategies. When Project ARK was launched late March, our country had extremely limited RT-PCR testing capacity and the virus itself was still not fully understood.
Through our initiatives, we’ve supported government hospitals by donating RT-PCR machines from the private sector. These allowed 11 hospitals to increase their testing capacity and ramp up operations in their respective communities. This initiative was made possible through ARK-PCR private sector chief implementer Jannette Garin.
Our major accomplishment was not only making testing available in government hospitals, but also making sure that testing was timely and affordable. Now that we have gathered sufficient resources and more information about the virus, we are starting to implement pooled testing.
We understood the need to co-exist with the virus, which led us to work with the Philippine Society of Pathologists Inc., Research Institute of Tropical Medicine, and Philippine Children’s Medical Center on a major research study. These doctors, together with laboratory specialists and medical technologists, have served as our ‘eyes’ in finding the invisible enemy.
The findings of the study recommended pooling five swab samples in one RT-PCR test kit as the optimal way to maintain 98 percent accuracy without too much dilution. The recommended pools of five will be able to offer 70 percent savings and speed up turnaround time by 1.08, although the dilution brings the sensitivity rate to 83 percent.
In terms of cost, pools of five will range from P400 to P700 per person in the pilot implementation. This is a significant decrease in cost from a single PCR test which can cost from P4,000 to P8,000.
As part of our testing innovations to combat COVID-19, we are also looking at saliva COVID testing, which was introduced by Glenn Yu of SeaOil Philippines. He discussed the possible contribution of the saliva test in reviving the economy and helping micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) bounce back.
This simpler and minimally invasive testing method from Israel uses AI technology and has the potential to reduce the turnaround time to less than a second, lowering the cost of testing and producing a high-reliability percentage. This will also definitely reduce the demand for scarce testing resources.
We are not closing the door to innovations. We will constantly review them and work with the DOH to validate the new testing methods and provide the right guidance. Adding saliva to our country’s testing arsenal enhances our capacity for increased testing while reducing the strain on the healthcare system.
Stopping the spread of the virus requires finding and testing all suspected cases so that confirmed cases are promptly and effectively isolated and treated. Contact tracing will follow so they can be rapidly identified, quarantined, and monitored.
With the continuing COVID-19 transmission in the country, both the government and the private sector are working closely to address the problem we all face.
By ensuring continued testing and the gathering of more data, the government and the private sector can develop a more strategic and comprehensive mitigation plan. Through this, we can better help our frontliners – most especially the doctors and nurses manning the hospitals – and micro, small, and medium enterprises.