The challenge of mass testing


IT is common sense that in order for us to fight an enemy properly, we have to gather as much information as possible. The Covid-19 pandemic is currently our country’s greatest enemy, and while we are discovering how to fight it from the point of view of medical technology, what we really want to know is how many boots on the ground does Covid-19 have. We have to have an idea, statistically, of how many are infected, and where. And that means we have to do mass testing.

The reality of mass testing in our country is that it is a challenge. While we may have had 307,813 samples tested, and 21,643 individuals have been found to be positive for the virus, it is also true that we still have 818,338 samples to be tested. It is a certainty that as we lower our quarantine restrictions we should have the ability to test for suspect cases, close contacts of people who are under observation, and frontliners. We should also be prepared to test for possible asymptomatic carriers, and those who are in vulnerable communities. All these tests should be processed in a timely manner, with a minimized backlog. If your backlog is almost three times the amount that has been processed, then it is a problem, in no uncertain terms.

I asked about the capability for mass testing during the Committee of the Whole hearing last week, and Department of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told me that there were three things that were greatly affecting the country’s mass-testing ability. He said that first off, the process of accreditation affected it. Apparently, technicians of candidate-laboratories would fail in the DOH’s s proficiency test. It’s absolutely essential that these technicians pass this test, given the processes and inherent dangers of handling possibly infectious samples. The second factor Duque mentioned was our supply chain for the resources needed for mass testing. We simply lack the productive capacity to make the test kits locally.  Even if we had the capacity to produce our own, the imported materials we need are also being distributed slowly in the global supply chain. Finally, there is the reality that our human resources for mass testing will need time to build up competency— this is due, in part, to the complicated testing process, not to mention the encoding of test results and other related issues.

A part of the solution was presented when the Inter-Agency Task Force named BCDA Vice President Vince Dizon as the 3T Czar (Test, Treat, Trace). Through him, we can rally for help in the private business sector. Some of the mass testing required can, in effect, be shouldered by the business entities themselves. This is on one hand a practical plan, as many of those who need to be tested en masse would of course be employees who have to report for work following the relaxing of enhanced community quarantine guidelines. On the other hand, even with the assistance of the private business sector, we should be honest with ourselves: the government’s capability for mass testing sorely needs improving.

The goal, therefore, is two-fold. First, we should address any short-term issue that makes local mass testing troublesome, such as through training and accreditation support for candidate labs to make the process smoother and faster, without sacrificing quality. This of course goes in tandem with making sure that we have procured adequate testing kits and laboratory equipment.

Second, we should develop the future capacity and capability of the country to handle medical disasters similar to the Covid-19 pandemic. And this has to address broader issues like skills building for professionals in the required fields, gaps in our supply chains, and our lack of local capacity to produce the components needed for mass testing.

Some of my past columns have talked about how technology can be used to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Let us, however, remember that technology is just a tool, and in order for a tool’s use to be maximized, we need to train people on how to use these technologies well.

As Chairman of the Committee on Finance, we are now leading discussions in the Senate on the administration’s proposed Covid-19 economic recovery plan.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to address some of the issues with mass testing as we craft the legislation needed.

Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years—nine years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and six as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws.  He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.

E-mail: [email protected]| Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @sonnyangara.

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