How COVID-19 testing is conducted in PH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 19) -- The Philippines has so far processed over 1,000 patient samples for COVID-19.

New cases of coronavirus disease were recorded by health authorities in the Philippines each day since March 6, indicating the virus continues to spread.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III earlier noted that since there are now localized transmission of the COVID-19 in the country, more people would be infected and need to be tested.

According to the Department of Health, those who must be tested are 'patients under investigation.' They are people with severe symptoms of COVID-19 such as pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome, as well as those aged 65 years old and above and pregnant women with fever, tiredness and dry cough. 

Here are some of the things you need to know about coronavirus testing in the Philippines:

Nose-throat swab collection

Using a swab, health care workers take specimens from the nose and back of the throat of PUIs.

Collection must also take place within 14 days after the manifestation of symptoms to ascertain accurate diagnosis, the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine has said. RITM is the national reference laboratory for emerging infectious diseases.

Specimen collector should also be wearing a personal protective equipment — goggles, face shield, “fit-tested” N95 mask, clean and long-sleeved gown as well as gloves to defend themselves from infection.

Health experts have said COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets from the nose or mouth of those who are infected.

Each sample will then be put in a tube, sealed and taken to the RITM or its accredited subnational laboratories for diagnostic purposes. The personnel must have a know-how on specimen spillage procedures, and make sure the specimen reaches the testing centers in good condition.

The RITM earlier served as the only confirmatory testing laboratory for COVID-19 in the Philippines, conducting tests on 300 nasal and throat swabs a day.

It was able to increase its daily testing capacity to 450 tests upon receipt of additional supplies from the World Health Organization.

As of Friday, the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City, Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City, Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center in Benguet, and San Lazaro Hospital in Manila started testing as well.

What happens next?

Once the samples arrive in a qualified testing facility, technicians use a method called PCR or polymerase chain reaction to look for the presence of novel coronavirus or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.

The technique is used to look for the genetic material (RNA) of the virus in patient samples and this can only be done by highly-trained individuals.

They also use a test kit which consists of reagents, enzymes and other supplies to perform the lab test, the RITM said.

There are only four COVID-19 kits approved for commercial use by Food and Drug Administration - two of which are manufactured in China while the rest are from South Korea.

A local test kit developed by Filipino scientists from the University of the Philippines-National Institutes of Health is currently being validated by infectious disease experts to make sure it produces accurate results. The kit, which is six times cheaper than its foreign counterparts, may be available two weeks from now.

How long does it take to get results?

The RITM said that patients could expect to know if they tested positive 48 hours after their samples were taken.

The RITM added they may have to wait longer than two days if the samples have to be recollected and resent back to the laboratory as there are instances when they fail the criteria for “acceptable specimen.”

As of Thursday noon, the number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus disease in the Philippines rose to 217, with 17 deaths and eight recoveries.

Globally, the COVID-19 has so far afflicted almost 250,000 people and killed over 10,000. Most of the COVID-19-related deaths are now recorded in Italy, making it the new deadliest center of the outbreak.