The need for improved testing

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Ever since Covid-19 cases started to surge with the coming of the New Year, anecdotal reports have since emerged about delayed RT-PCR results and long queues in swabbing stations. Our colleague, Sen. Ping Lacson, even tweeted about waiting for two days for results—before deciding to just get another swab in the hopes of getting more prompt feedback.

Indeed, as the Department of Health (DOH) suggests, it appears that demand for testing has surged to unprecedented levels such that the existing network of laboratories across the country just couldn’t keep up.

On one hand, this could very well be a sign that the more transmissible Omicron variant has reached our shores. An infectious disease expert earlier remarked that the spike in Covid-19 infections in Metro Manila could already indicate “massive and uncontrolled community transmission” of the variant.

On the other hand, this also speaks to the continuing need for our health-care systems—including our network of diagnostic clinics and laboratories—to ramp up their surge capacity, or their built-in capability to handle such upticks in demand.

It’s important to note, however, that two years ago, the know-how to test for Covid-19 cases was concentrated in just one lab—that of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM). That the country has been able to grow the diagnostic network to its present scale and at such a short time is no miniscule feat, born out of close collaboration between the public and private sector. Which is to say, the reports of delayed release of results underscore that this collaboration should persist, and that the diagnostic network should continue to grow.

Testing for Covid-19 is an important pillar to our pandemic response, alongside our efforts to trace and treat. When diagnostics are hobbled by delays, it would be difficult for authorities to determine the full extent of infections, which in turn would hamper any further attempt to contain the spread. Many have called for mass testing with this reasoning, but no less than the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that mainly targeting those who are symptomatic would be a better, more efficient use of scarce resources.

That the costs of RT-PCR tests are prohibitive for many should not be glossed over though. This is why as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, we increased in the 2022 General Appropriations Act (more commonly known as the national budget), the items for Covid-19 Laboratory Network Commodities to P17.851 billion (P7.922 billion under the DOH-Office of the Secretary, and P9.92 billion as unprogrammed or standby funds). With these funds, government labs should be able to conduct Covid-19 tests free of charge. We also included up to P100 million under the Department of Labor and Employment for free Covid-19 testing for jobseekers.

One possible way of easing the overwhelming pressure on diagnostic labs to churn out RT-PCR results is for individuals to undertake rapid antigen testing at home, just as how it is practiced in other countries. These rapid kits are also much cheaper, hence would be more widely accessible.

The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any antigen test kit for home use in the country, however, though it is our understanding that steps are already underway for the respective certifications to be revised accordingly. Once such approval is granted, it is critical that the public is well informed about the proper way of handling such tests.

Clearly, the pandemic is not yet over. And if we are to ever get ahead and manage this crisis, it is critical that we do all that is needed to ramp up our testing capacity, alongside other interventions related to treating and tracing.

Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 years.  He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.

E-mail: sensonnyangara@yahoo.com | Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara