Because President Duterte, in his Thursday address to the nation, egregiously failed to mention them and their potentially milestone work in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s even more imperative to hail the achievement of Filipino scientists from the University of the Philippines-National Institutes of Health (UP-NIH), who have developed a COVID-19 testing kit six times cheaper than its foreign counterpart, with even faster results.
While the health crisis has provoked panic, paranoia and xenophobia, with entire countries on lockdown, travel across borders at a standstill, and grocery shelves emptied, the UP scientists’ work stands as one of the few bright spots at this time, especially since the Philippines is in dire need of more test kits to halt the advance of the epidemic.
The homegrown device, developed by a team led by Dr. Raul Destura, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, was given a “certificate of exemption” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday, which would allow it to be “used for field testing coupled with gene sequencing at the Philippine Genome Center.”
FDA director general Rolando Enrique Domingo said the UP test kits will help monitor the growing number of patients suspected of having contracted COVID-19, and provide the public greater access to a less costly diagnostic procedure.
According to the Department of Science and Technology, tests using the locally developed kit will cost only P1,320 compared to foreign-sourced kits at P8,500 each. The kit also yields results in two hours’ time, instead of the 24 to 48 hours required by test kits sourced from abroad.
Domingo said production of the kit should be ramped up in response to the global lack of test kits to monitor the actual number of novel coronavirus cases. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III earlier quoted the World Health Organization (WHO) as admitting to a global shortage of the virus detection device; Duque also conceded that the lack of such test kits in the Philippines might have led to an “unintentional underreporting” of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines.
Currently, the country only has 2,000 test kits, and expects to receive 4,500 more from the WHO. Duque has assured that funds are available for the purchase of more kits, with the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. committing P2 billion to help the DOH expand coverage of COVID-19 testing.
But while enthusiastic response and local pride over the UP-developed test kit are understandable in the face of the escalating threat of this largely unknown virus, several quarters have also expressed reservations about the device.
WHO Philippines representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said the agency has yet to evaluate the kit and would appreciate information about it from the FDA and the scientists.
“We’ve set up an emergency list that we are using to rapidly assess how the test kits perform,” he said. “You shouldn’t be getting either false positives or false negatives; they both could have very severe implications.”
Former health secretary and now House Deputy Minority Leader Janette Garin similarly cautioned the DOH against the mass purchase of the UP test kit.
“I am in support of our scientists, but before the kits are declared good enough for mass production, it should first have the same accuracy, specificity, and sensitivity of those kits being supplied by the WHO to us for free,” she said.
While the WHO is evaluating the UP-produced kit, local government units should instead promptly administer antiflu and antipneumonia shots to senior citizens as provided by law, since the elderly are the ones most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, added Garin.
Domingo has said that the UP-developed test kit is 95-percent accurate, and the UP scientists have also declared that a commercial version of the kit could be rolled out after a three-week field test validation in selected hospitals. Such tests for a new device are necessary, of course, especially for a tool this critical, and it is reasonable to wait for a more thorough review by an independent body.
But, given the urgency of the situation, can the WHO also move faster in evaluating the local test kit? If the device turns out to be all good, and thereafter gets deployed promptly and widely, it may well prove to be a critical factor in helping the country contain the epidemic. And, at the very least, it should shine a light on the sterling but often unappreciated work of Filipino scientists.
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