PRC pilots 1,000 saliva tests

January 11, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Red Cross (PRC) is set to conduct 1,000 saliva COVID-19 tests starting today as part of its pilot study for a cheaper and less intrusive type of testing for Filipinos.

Paulyn Ubial, chief of the PRC’s molecular laboratories, said they were targeting to submit all the samples to the Department of Health (DOH) next week.

Ubial, a former health secretary, said they had already presented results of their success in saliva tests to the DOH last October but the agency was only able to give feedback this month.

“And now they are asking us to speed up (the process) to release the 1,000 additional samples that we are going to do starting with Senator Gordon as our pilot in our implementation on Monday,” Ubial said in an interview with Teleradyo yesterday.

The initial tests the PRC conducted last October yielded a 95 percent concordance rate with the gold standard reverse transcription – polymerase chain reaction tests, according to Ubial. This means that when patients tested positive or negative in RT-PCR, the same results came out in saliva tests.

In saliva tests, a mode deemed as a cheaper and faster alternative in tracing the coronavirus disease 2019, persons can spit inside a sterile vial that would be sealed and documented for results.

“You can get tested once every week because it is cheaper,” Gordon said, adding that it only costs P2,000 or less.

Administering saliva tests also does not need a specimen collector and a skilled professional to wear personal protective equipment, nor expensive collection vials with transport media. It also does not need swab kits.

Sample processing time, according to the PRC, is also shorter with three hours instead of the six to seven hours for swab tests.

Gordon said since saliva tests would be cheaper, this would also benefit PhilHealth, which had incurred so far an outstanding debt of P651 million due to testing services by the Red Cross.

As of yesterday, the PRC has conducted over 1.6 million COVID-19 tests.

Meanwhile, Secretary Fortunato dela Peña gave assurance that the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) is ready to provide assistance to pharmaceutical firms Janssen and Clover Biopharmaceuticals in identifying areas where they could hold clinical trials for their respective candidate COVID-19 vaccines.

Dela Peña said they would do the trial zone identification once the two firms signify their readiness to start the clinical trials, noting that this process has to be updated often because the COVID-19 cases change every day in different localities.

“The statistics of cases in different sites are changing. When they say they are ready to start trials, that’s when the zones will be identified. The incidence of COVID cases should be high at that particular time,” he told The STAR.

Previously, the DOST-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) and the Ateneo Center for Computing Competency and Research developed a web-based disease surveillance tool dubbed Feasibility Analysis of Syndromic Surveillance Using Spatio-Temporal Epidemiological Modeler For Early Detection of Diseases (FASSSTER) to do a smart and efficient identification of COVID-19 hotspots in the country.

Dela Peña said the features and capabilities of FASSTER, such as its ability to identify hotspots of COVID-19 cases in a certain locality, makes it useful for the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials particularly in selecting the best areas where to get volunteer-participants.

PCHRD executive director Jaime Montoya said the FASSSTER project was started in 2016 to provide, initially, an effective disease surveillance system against the dengue virus carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

The project has since been recalibrated as a web-based disease surveillance platform for COVID-19 to allow policymakers to understand the outbreak at the national, regional and local levels and assess the effects of the preventive measures in place. – Rainier Allan Ronda

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