Coronavirus testing laboratories facing supply shortages – expert

The Philippines' coronavirus testing laboratories, already limited in number, are facing another obstacle, as dwindling supplies threaten to further hamper the country's low testing capacity.

During a discussion with Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, healthcare financing expert Marife Yap said several laboratories have reported a lack of equipment – those that are difficult to obtain during the pandemic. 

"Talagang nagkaka-problema tayo ngayon sa iba't ibang mga pangangailangan ng laboratoryo, lalo't higit po dito sa mga tinatawag nilang RNA extraction kits at 'yung PCR (polymerase chain reaction) kits," Yap said in a briefing on Monday, May 18. 

(We're really facing a problem with the different needs of laboratories, especially RNA extraction kits and PCR kits.) 

Yap, one of the co-founders of the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health, now works with Thinkwell, a global company that helps countries achieve affordable, high-quality universal health coverage.

Thinkwell is currently helping the DOH with its coronavirus response

Why are supplies running low? Yap cited several factors, such as laboratories being equipped to use only a certain kind or brand of RNA extraction kit or PCR kit to process test samples. 

"Hindi lahat na available sa merkado ay p'wede gamitin sa ilang mga laboratoryo natin," she said. (Not all [kits] available in the market can be used in our laboratories.)

Aside from this, Yap said it is also difficult to procure the exact kind of kits needed, as competition is fierce among countries that need the same product. Global demand for these specific items has increased, she added, as the World Health Organization recommended that PCR test kits be used as the standard to diagnose coronavirus patients. 

Laboratories also experienced faster depletion of supplies after the government ramped up testing. Yap said laboratories used more supplies to keep up with the increase in the number of test samples gathered from swabbing centers recently set up by the government in several locations.

The arrival of ordered items, meanwhile, could take anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks, according to Yap. 

Why this matters: The government earlier said it was aiming to increase daily testing capacity to 30,000 tests, up from its initial target of 8,000. Latest data from the DOH showed that the government has been conducting some 11,000 tests daily. 

The government set up several "mega swabbing centers" to increase the country's testing capacity. It also decided to rely on the private sector to boost numbers further.

What now? Low supplies of essential equipment could mean further backlogs for the country's coronavirus testing laboratories. 

Yap said some laboratories with low supplies are currently using donated items that have been validated for use. Private lab partners also supplied laboratories with extraction kits to ensure that testing is carried out continuously, particularly in the provinces.  

Aside from this, Yap said Thinkwell and DOH are also looking to set up a system with private partners to see which labs have only two weeks' worth of supplies left. The system would then be used to direct supplies where they are needed before they run out. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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