The University of the Philippines (UP) Mindanao is proposing a diagnostic program that can give free testing for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the Davao Region. The program includes establishing a PhP15-million biosafety molecular lab, which will have to be attached to a hospital and is expected to supplement the ongoing tests in the Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC). SPMC is currently the only medical facility in Mindanao recognized as a subnational reference laboratory that can test for COVID-19.
Philippine Genome Center (PGC) Mindanao director Dr. Lyre Anni Murao, a professor of virology at UP Mindanao and author of the proposal, wrote, “To back up the existing facility in SPMC and to prepare for the unprecedented peak of outbreak of the disease, it is only imperative to consider the establishment of another diagnostic facility for faster and efficient diagnosis for coronavirus. For example, the Marikina local government has established its own diagnostic lab for free COVID-19 testing of local health workers and suspected cases.”
The proposed lab will be made from two container vans—the easiest way to set up the facility—and equipped with a real-time polymerase chain reaction or PCR detection system and other equipment. The facility will also be designed to handle infectious materials based on guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Department of Health (DOH).
Dr. Murao stated, “The role of PGC Mindanao is capability building. We will organize trainings for our partner hospital on biosafety procedures and molecular diagnostics. During the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, our staff can also assist in the testing if there is a need for extra personnel. But eventually, our partner hospital will have to run the lab itself. That’s why it is important for this lab to be attached to a hospital so its operations will be sustainable in the long run.”
When operating in full capacity at 96 tests per day, monthly operational costs for the lab (procuring kits, reagents, and consumables, as well as costs for other requirements) are pegged at PhP10.3 million.
WHO recommends that interrupting human-to-human transmission through community quarantine, social distancing, and other measures should be coupled with aggressive testing in order to identify, isolate, and treat patients early. These strategies in concert are known to be effective as in the case of China, Singapore, and South Korea. But as WHO has repeatedly announced, lockdowns and social distancing are not enough.
In a recent study, UP Mindanao biomathematical expert Dr. May Anne Mata notes, “With the current landscape of COVID-19 in the region, testing asymptomatic individuals or COVID-19 carriers is necessary since they may show no symptoms but can freely transmit the disease if not regulated.”
Her mathematical model’s projections show that the total COVID-19 carriers in Davao Region will likely reach a maximum of 3000 individuals with a testing rate of 0.1% per day—that is, for every 1000 COVID-19 asymptomatic individuals, only 1 is tested. But if the testing rate is increased to 70% to 100% per day, the number of COVID-19 carriers will reach 0 within a faster period compared to the status quo testing capacity.
The study has not yet been published, but an early draft will be presented to local authorities to help guide policies in the region moving forward.
Last Friday, March 20, a UP Mindanao delegation consisting of the chancellor Dr. Larry Digal, the vice chancellor for academic affairs Dr. Nilo Oponda, and PGC Mindanao director Dr. Murao met with officials from the city council and DOH, as well as advisors from SPMC, to discuss the proposal. The delegation also met with SPMC chief Dr. Leopoldo Vega afterwards.
“Testing is really necessary. In fact, some local government units have already expressed interest in investing in such a lab facility. For the Davao Region, we are exploring all options on how to fund this initiative, particularly a private-public partnership. We already have contacts from the private sector who are willing to help in procuring much-needed equipment like PCR machines compatible with available test kits. The machine needs to be imported and is a costly investment. For now, we are awaiting formal response from DOH and the Davao Region COVID-19 Task Force to see how we can proceed,” said Chancellor Digal.
Dr. Murao added, “This lab can also serve as a model that can be replicated in other sites of the country for accurate and timely detection of the disease. The lab also has future use for other infectious and emerging diseases, making the country even more prepared for crisis such as this.”
As of 12 noon, March 22, the Davao Region has recorded 3 patients testing positive for COVID-19, with 58 out of the 104 persons under investigation (PUIs) admitted (5 deaths: 2 cleared; 3 awaiting confirmation) and 6837 out of the 8285 persons under monitoring (PUMs) still under observation according to DOH XI.
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