How a team of Filipino scientists developed a COVID-19 test kit

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The SARS CoV-2 detection kit was developed by a group of 15 scientists from the Philippine Genome Center and the University of the Philippines Manila's National Institutes of Health. Photo by JILSON TIU

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Filipino science community remains largely underappreciated and underfunded. Within the last five years, the Department of Science and Technology has faced a consistent decrease in their annual budget allocation, posing great difficulty for scientists and researchers in the Philippines.

In a brief online statement released on March 11, Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson expressed his frustration about the matter and called for an increase in the presently “miniscule” budget allocation for research and development in the Philippines. “For the same five-year period, the DOST’s average budget is only ₱20 billion or a meager 0.56% against the trillions of pesos that we pass every year as our national budget,” he wrote.

While the limited financial support poses great challenge for the community, Filipino scientists and researchers continue to attain breakthroughs — and all for the service of the general public.

Their latest achievement is a test kit to detect cases of novel coronavirus, an essential tool today as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country continues to rise at a rapid rate. The detection kit is expected to aid Filipino frontliners in confirming positive cases of the virus.

Dr. Raul V. Destura, the deputy executive director of the Philippine Genome Center, spearheaded the development of the SARS CoV-2 detection kit. Photo by JILSON TIU

The GenAmplify™ COVID-19 rRT-PCR Detection Kit was developed by a team of scientists from the Philippine Genome Center and the University of the Philippines Manila’s National Institutes of Health — the same team that developed the “Lab-in-a-Mug” test kits for dengue. Leading the core team of 15 members was “the conductor of the symphony”: Dr. Raul V. Destura, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist who currently serves as the deputy executive director of the Philippine Genome Center. His research is geared towards “developing low-cost technologies for the control of infectious diseases in the Philippines and the generation of new knowledge to find sustainable and equitable solutions to disease of poverty."

Destura believes that it is his and his colleagues’ responsibility to assist the efforts of the government in providing technology to help our nation, as well as develop technologies to aid in the labor of our frontliners in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Hindi siya madali, pero pinilit nating kayanin dahil gusto nating ipakita din na kaya nating gawin dito sa ating bayan, na i-address ang pangangailangan ng bansa natin,” he says. Destura adds that the intention is to remind fellow Filipino scientists to “dream bigger.”

The Thermal Cycler is used in conducting the test of COVID-19 and is available in most hospitals in Manila, but the expensive equipment will most likely not be available in provincial hospitals. Photo by JILSON TIU

The team started developing the test kit in January, immediately after scientists from China released the whole genome sequence of the virus and disseminated the information to scientists from other countries. Destura explained that all research organizations from across the globe who had the information started on the same foot and were provided with the same timeline to address the needs of their respective countries.

“Very important na sa simula pa lang ng mga ganitong situation, involved na ang scientific community,” he notes.

Destura was hands-on with the test kit development. When asked about the specifics of his tasks, he shared that he was the one to validate, challenge, and resolve the team’s findings. “I’m the one that gives them solutions when they’re hitting a wall.”

Assisting him through the process was his co-developer, Joy Ann Santos, university researcher at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, National Institutes of Health, whom he said had to stay in the laboratory longer than he did.

The SARS CoV-2 detection kit is currently being manufactured and stockpiled by Manila HealthTek, Inc., and will be used for field testing coupled with gene sequencing at the PGC. Using the local GenAmplify will only cost around ₱1,320 per test, an affordable alternative to the high-cost foreign-made kit. Around 200 GenAmplify can be produced within a week. Photo by JILSON TIU

In managing a team of scientists, he noted two things: one needed an idea and an experimental design. He also emphasized on the need for collaboration inside the laboratory. The process of developing this new technology was “very tedious” as it does not solely end on one positive result. Rather, the team is required to repeat every step to recreate the tool 40 to 60 times more in order to ensure effectiveness.

The budgetary restrictions did not go unnoticed. “Lagi namang problema ‘yan sa Pilipinas,” said Destura. However, the scientist prefers to keep it optimistic when looking at the situation. “Ang maganda, na-train tayo to do the best with what we have. So financial management of resources is very important in managing research labs. Talagang kailangan mo lang talagang ibigay ang lahat despite our restrictions and limitations.”

The development of the COVID-19 rRT-PCR Detection Kit is also a promise of better accessibility to the public, as it will be made available at lesser cost compared to its existing foreign-developed counterparts. GenAmplify™ will likely cost around ₱1,320 per test, whereas foreign-made kits are at ₱8,500 per test. “So we are one with the government in providing this technology, para sana maging accessible sa lahat,” Dr. Destura said.

A scientist at the Philippine Genome Center demonstrates how the laboratory works at the center.

There still remains the need, however, to remind everyone that the developed technology is not a cure to the novel coronavirus, but rather a tool for detecting positive cases.

He shared the likelihood of a vaccine for COVID-19 being developed by the European team, and expressed his hope for the Philippines to one day have its own vaccine development capacity.

His takeaway from the experience as the lead scientist in the project is quite simple: “We [scientists] are also a citizen of this country. We are also bound to respond to the country’s needs. It’s our duty, actually. We are scientists, then we should be scientists. We’re not politicians. We’re not artists.”