Deploy UP test kits
What has happened to the COVID-19 test kits developed by University of the Philippines scientists? How come they seem to have disappeared, while the government has relied on imported coronavirus test kits?
Those are valid, reasonable questions, but they can get you a vicious tongue-lashing from the country’s top diplomat, on Twitter no less.
Ask Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who posed the questions on Monday. Out of the blue, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. went berserk and, in the kind of discourse he has patented on social media that totally debases his office, lobbed an expletive-flecked rant at Pangilinan.
No doubt the outburst had shock value, and was red meat for administration partisans who delight in piling on opposition figures such as Pangilinan, but his line of inquiry was left dismissed: Why should government spend taxpayer money on imported test kits when a locally-produced kit is much cheaper? Why was it taking the Department of Health (DOH) so long to release for commercial use the local test kit that was ready for mass use as early as April, but which it recalled in mid-May over some “minor defects”? And did someone profit and benefit from the pricey imported test kits used in the meantime?
The last question is nothing new. In May, Sen. Panfilo Lacson raised concerns over what he described as a “pattern of overpricing” in the DOH’s procurement of COVID-19 medical supplies.
While it was “fixing” the defects of the local test kit which, it turned out, centered on contaminated imported reagents used and not on the unit itself, the DOH started importing test kits from China in massive numbers. In his rabid tweet, Locsin maintained that Chinese and South Korean test kits are simply better (“They’re proved to fucking work that’s fucking why… I am not gonna let our people die in the name of Filipino First”). However, other countries had reported instances of having to return China-made test kits that failed accuracy and sensitivity tests, and the DOH itself disclosed in March that some China kits it got were only 40-percent accurate, though it later apologized and retracted the statement after the Chinese Embassy complained.
The DOH did announce over the weekend that the UP-made test kits are now ready for commercial use. The kits, which use the same technology as the first units donated to the Philippines by the World Health Organization, were approved by the Food and Drug Administration for commercial sale on July 10.
Despite its similarities to the WHO kits, the local units have distinct advantages, according to Dr. Raul Destura of the UP Philippine Genome Center who led the team of scientists behind the test kit. First, it is cheaper, with cost of production pegged at only P1,320 as opposed to the P8,500 price tag of imported units. That lower price means more kits at less cost for government hospitals, and even for individuals whose health insurance might not cover it, Destura said.
Since it uses local materials, there is no time lost in importation, so delivery of the units is seen to be faster, a crucial factor in a pandemic where the number of cases continues to rise. The lower cost and faster delivery would “democratize access” to the kits even in remote areas, said Destura, and help the country identify—and therefore isolate and treat posthaste—more COVID-19 cases. The local kits can also help stabilize the supply of test units and provide medical facilities and labs more options for testing. Didn’t government earlier blame the lack of test units for its failure to meet projected testing targets of up to 50,000 a day?
Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, meanwhile, took note of the faster test results using the local test kits that, he said, could prevent further transmission of the virus. Confirmed COVID-19 cases are currently on the rise because infected individuals who get tested using imported kits have to go back to their homes while waiting for results, possibly infecting their families, he said.
Pangilinan brought out another pragmatic point: “As concerned as we are for the health of the Filipinos, we are also keenly looking after the well-being of our state coffers. Every peso of meaningful, honest, and transparent spending and saving will go a long way, especially amid an economic crisis.” In fact, the availability of the local test kit has already affected market forces this early, Pangilinan noted. In a statement Wednesday, he said the prices of imported kits—which range from P4,000 to P8,000—have dropped by 26 percent.
The DOH says it is targeting to test at least 10 million Filipinos by 2021. That would entail enormous cost, which means if the cheaper UP test kit were now to perform as well as its foreign counterparts, there is no reason for the government to dilly-dally further in mass-producing the equipment, and rolling it out to provide the mass testing essential to arresting the pandemic.
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