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Let me share with you an excerpt from my interview yesterday with Cathy Yang of ANC.
**The text has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Cathy: What’s the latest on the testing? You’ve raised a million kits 48 hours ago. How many of those have been put to work so far?
Joey: We have about 168 companies who joined, and around 1,016,000 kits that have been purchased, which will arrive May 15. But we already have some test kits that we’re using right now in the mass testing in Manila. We had a presscon there with Mayor Isko. The results were very good. From the 1,409 tested, about four percent or 62 people were confirmed positive. But they will be subjected to another PCR test. In Sampaloc, the cases were very low. Four out of 854 were suspected to be infected, which we call IgM positive, so that’s only 0.4 percent. After Sampaloc, next would be Manila, Pasig, Quezon City, Marikina, and Taguig. Most of the mayors are joining this initiative.
C: These test kits detect two kinds of antibodies, the IgG and the one you mentioned, IgM. IgM can be found in those positive for COVID-19, while IgG is present in those that have recovered. So which between the two can donate the blood for plasma therapy and which one proceeds to the swab testing or the PCR test?
J: If you’re confirmed to be IgM positive, you’ll have to go for the swab testing. If you’re IgG positive, it means that you have antibodies. What we see is about 1.6 percent to two percent of those we initially tested have IgG, so they most probably had the virus before and just didn’t know about it.
After they are deemed positive using the rapid antibody test, these people proceed to the testing centers to do swab tests. Mayor Isko has them isolated, and that’s the most important. The IgM positive always has to be isolated. They will then take the swab test and be quarantined if they are found to be positive.
So Project ARK, basically, what the private sector is trying to do is open up the economy. It is either you do lockdown or you do the test. It’s either one of the two. The option that does least damage to the economy is testing. So we can get the private sector to help. At the moment with have 168 (companies), and a hundred more are inquiring right now. Eventually I’m seeing around 500 private companies taking part in this initiative. Testing is not just for this month, it’s forever until we found a cure for the virus.
C: Then, why not undergo the rt-PCR test right then and there? The rt-PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test kits are considered by the health department as the gold standard in testing as this can detect SARS-COVID II, the virus causing COVID-19.
J: Yes, but let’s look at the capacity right now. They’re supposed to hit 8,000 (tests) by April 30, they are not able to hit that. They’re not also able to test asymptomatic patients. You have to be symptomatic to be able to do this test. Another consideration is the price of the rt-PCR test. It’s about P3,500 versus the rapid test which is around P450.
Project ARK aims to support the government hospitals. Today, we are finalizing the memo, and hopefully within this week, we can push through with helping six government hospitals to upgrade their testing facilities. This is led by former health secretary Jannette Garin on the private sector side. Project ARK is also going to support ramping up rt-PCR tests, which is also important. We need both of these test methods, the rapid and rt-PCR to really make everything more efficient, and give us a better view of the situation.
The advantage of rapid testing is that you can do it quickly. Yes, they say that error may occur. That’s why frequent testing is very important for rapid testing. Our recommendation is to do the rapid testing twice a month, the first week and the third week of the month. With that, you’ll have greater visibility. The thing here is speed. You test, you get the results instantly. So hopefully, when there is more capacity, the result of the PCR test will be out in two days. Now, it’s about five days I have been told, according to Mayor Isko Moreno. He’s getting the results between four to five days.
C: So, you’re doing this to isolate those who have tested positive and then have them go to accredited hospitals for the rt-PCR test?
J: We’re doing this to gain visibility. The more we test our people, the more we discover where the virus is. Joji Gotianun-Yap, who is part of Project ARK, and can map out the COVID-19 situation in the country with the help of Thinking Machines. The idea is to eventually map out the entire Philippines: green, red, and yellow zones. So the consumers will have the confidence to go out.
At this point in time, many entrepreneurs don’t know what their business models will look like. We have to see how the consumer behavior will be. Testing is the only way to bring back confidence. And if we’re able to map out where the green zones are in Metro Manila, then more consumers will go there rather than to the red and yellow zones.
That is the idea behind this whole strategy, it’s not testing alone. You have to isolate and trace. Testing has to come up with data, because data is so precious. So, all private sector companies and all the LGUs will have to submit their data to a central group. Together with the DOH data, this becomes very powerful. We will be able to come up with a projection and a clearer picture of how the Philippines looks on a daily basis.
Lockdown creates visibility. Testing creates visibility.
Let’s assume that the virus will never disappear. Then let’s create an environment where we can coexist with the virus. That’s the best way businesses can prepare, and the rapid test kits can help supplement that. In other words, we will use both methods – rt-PCR testing and the rapid test kits. For example, one million test kits will arrive within one month. Those tests can be used to test people. It can be done in a day or two, because there are many companies that are willing to do this with the help of doctors and nurses. So we can create a greater visibility starting this May. And hopefully, with the rt-PCR testing capacity going up, we will have more visibility.
The general community quarantine has to be implemented to be able to feel and see how entrepreneurs will react. Our economy is already suffering. The stimulus package of Congress is said to be close to P5 billion. That’s huge, but then again, if the economy will not open, what’s the use of the stimulus package? It’s not going to work. So, we have to open the economy with caution. Testing, isolating, and tracing is the only formula now for us to successfully coexist with the virus.