More tests needed as Philippines unlikely to reach COVID-19 peak soon – expert

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 1)— The Philippines has yet to reach its peak in COVID-19 infections, a health expert said Wednesday as the public continues to clamor for mass testing for the highly-contagious disease.

Esperanza Cabral, who served as head of the Department of Health in 2010, said the country can still expect an increase in positive cases in the next two weeks.

"I don't think we are peaking next week or even the week after. I don't think we have controlled coronavirus yet," Cabral told CNN Philippines' The Source, adding that the worst has "yet to come."

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country topped 2,000 as of the Health Department's latest record. Cabral attributed the continuous upward trend to more tests conducted by officials.

Despite this, the former health chief said the government would still need to secure tens of thousands more tests before officials can analyze the severity of the virus in local communities.

"We will have to do more tests. If we have done 10 or 20,000 of them, we can more or less determine what is the prevalence of coronavirus in our community," she added. "And perhaps we can say that at that time, (if) we have controlled or not controlled the coronavirus."

A total of 88 people have died due to the infectious disease in the Philippines, which saw its biggest single-day increase in cases so far on Tuesday. Fourty-nine patients have meanwhile recovered.

Online calls for mass testing— including from netizens and healthworkers alike— have circulated in the past few days, but DOH noted there was no need for that at the moment amid limited laboratory capacity.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved five imported rapid test kits— four manufactured in China and one from Singapore— in an effort to expedite the testing procedures for patients. However, the regulator said samples will still need to undergo confirmatory tests through the real-time polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR machine method.

Local scientists from the University of the Philippines have also developed cheaper rapid test kits for COVID-19, but the products are still under field validation.

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

Quarantine ineffective?

The entire of Luzon has also been placed under an "enhanced" community quarantine, a directive seen to restrict the movement of the people to curb the spread of the disease.

Cabral, however, said the quarantine imposed may prove to be ineffective, with some families unable to practice social distancing given the size of their homes.

"Most people do not have enough space in their homes to be really isolated from the rest of their family and community," she said.

The former health official meanwhile proposed a possible amendment to the quarantine protocol, which would allow "COVID-immune" individuals to leave their homes for work. She said this could be done by deploying the rapid test kits to communities.

"What we can do with it is we can test the community to find out who are already immune to coronavirus. These are the first people we can let out of the lockdown so that they can engage in economic activity," Cabral said.

A similar proposal also made rounds in Germany, with researchers reportedly proposing to roll out "immunity certificates" to residents who may be allowed to re-enter the workforce.

German researchers, through mass antibody tests, would check if residents have recovered or are already immune to the virus. Those who obtain positive results would be allowed to transition back to life and out of the lockdown.

Some lawmakers and officials have proposed the extension of the Luzon-wide quarantine, given the spike in COVID-19 cases. Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, however, said health officials would still have to finalize findings and guidelines before the government can figure out its next steps.