Despite lack of DOH guidelines, Duterte orders purchase of COVID-19 rapid test kits

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the purchase of rapid test kits in a bid to increase the Philippines' testing capacity for the coronavirus, despite the lack of Department of Health (DOH) guidelines on the use of the said kits.

Duterte on Monday night, April 13, said he was "clearing the way" for concerned agencies to procure the rapid test kits "immediately."

"I'm clearing the way, I will ask Secretary [Francisco] Duque to talk to the people in charge, si Secretary [Carlito] Galvez [Jr], and they can proceed to buy it immediately. As fast as you can really do the procurement at this time," Duterte said in a late night speech on Monday.  

"You can go ahead and buy it immediately, you have my clearance," he added. 

The DOH had been tasked to draft guidelines on the use of rapid test kits a day earlier on Sunday, April 14. 

Not foolproof: But despite Duterte's preference for rapid test kits, National Task Force COVID-19 Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez Jr said the government will still need to purchase at least 900,000 more polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based tests to confirm the validity of results gained from the use of rapid test kits. 

The PCR tests are expected to cost some P3.2 billion, while a ballpark figure was not yet available for the rapid test kits. Galvez said the government was looking to buy some 2 million rapid test kits approved by the US FDA.

The DOH earlier refused to recommend the use of rapid test kits, saying these are not accurate enough to check for the coronavirus in patients. The tests, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire earlier said, can produce false negative or false positive results. 

Other doctors, however, argue that rapid antibody testing is an "easy and convenient way to test" and would greatly aid in mass testing efforts.

Bypassing restrictions: Before making the announcement, Duterte scored the legal impediments that prohibited the DOH and the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) from purchasing rapid test kits.

Duterte was referring to the required clearance needed from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which likewise needed an assessment from the Health Technology and Assessment Council (HTAC).  

Created by the Universal Health Care law, the HTAC is a group of health experts tasked with evaluating latest health developments and recommending their use to DOH and PhilHealth. The group also assesses the safety and effectiveness of health technology, devices, medicines, vaccines, among others, and reviews the social, economic, and ethical issues when using these technologies. 

"There is a rule that we cannot use public funds to buy medical supplies, medicines without the FDA signal so na-hostage 'yung mga rapid tests we would like to buy (so the rapid test kits we would like to buy were held off). I will take the risk…I'm clearing the way by ordering the purchase," Duterte said. 

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, who is the spokesperson for the government's coronavirus task force, said during the briefing that the government could bypass the safety requirement in place under the Universal Health Care law by instead ordering the Office of Civil Defense or the procurements services of the Department of Budget and Management to facilitate the purchase. 

The Philippines' coronavirus response has so far been hampered by a low testing capacity, causing health experts to worry there is not enough data being gathered to form an accurate picture of the coronavirus' spread in the country. Others fear the virus could also be spreading undetected in communities.

The government's coronavirus task force earlier said it was aiming to conduct some 20,000 tests per day by April 27 to strengthen the country's health care system before the Luzon lockdown ends on April 30.

The Philippines on Monday counted 4,932 coronavirus cases, with 315 deaths and 242 recoveries. Worldwide, the deadly virus has infected over 1.8 million people and killed at least 114,000. – with a report from Agence France-Presse/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.

image