Roque admits 'slow' ramp-up of testing capacity at start of pandemic

MANILA, Philippines – The spokesman of the national government's task force on the coronavirus admitted that the Duterte administration could have been quicker in increasing its capacity to process COVID-19 test results in the early months of the crisis.

In a virtual press conference on Thursday, July 9, Presidential Spokesperson and task force spokesperson Harry Roque regretted that the country had only one laboratory for coronavirus tests in the first two months of the pandemic.

"So inaamin po natin na medyo naging mabagal iyong proseso na lumipas po ang dalawang buwan, iisa lang po iyong ating testing facility, iyong RITM (Research Institute for Tropical Medicine)," he said.

(So we admit that the process was kind of slow because two months had passed and we had only one testing facility, RITM.)

"It was only in March when we started to have more laboratories," he added.

The Duterte spokesman said that he personally feels that the government should have begun aggressive efforts to add to its testing laboratories as early as the country's first imported case.

"So if I were to look back and what we could have done better, siguro po noong nagkaroon tayo ng unang kaso na imported case ng COVID, eh dapat pinalawak na natin iyong testing capacity natin kaagad," he said.

(Perhaps when we had the first imported case of COVID-19, we should have already expanded our testing capacity immediately.)

Despite this lapse, Roque said the government is doing its best to boost its ability to contact trace possible coronavirus cases, test them, and treat them so they recover.

The Philippines' improvement of its testing capacity lags behind some of its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, for instance, was able to increase their testing labs to 112 by April, from just 3 in January. In the same time period, the Philippines was only able to grow its number of labs from one to 15.

The Philippines currently has 83 licensed laboratories, according to the Department of Health (DOH).

DOH responds

Later on Thursday, DOH spokesperson Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire was asked by media to react to Roque's remarks.

She admitted there were initial difficulties but that these were understandable given the unexpected scale and infectiousness of COVID-19.

"Because the virus was new in January, we had no capability to conduct tests for this and instead we would send our specimens to Australia for testing. Before, there was no standard for processing of laboratories based on biosafety requirements," she said in Filipino.

"We had to procure equipment and supplies like RT-PCR machines and reagents amid a global shortage when there was huge demand but lacking supply," she added.

Rappler in-depth report details how the country's health and epidemiology systems were overwhelmed by the pandemic in the critical months of January and February. This initial difficulty was exacerbated by a lack of decisive leadership from President Rodrigo Duterte who was dependent on the World Health Organization's statements and was late in preparing for a worst-case scenario.

At the time when there were only imported coronavirus cases (persons who came from abroad but tested positive in the Philippines), the government was sluggish in preparing for possible local transmission.

Because of this delay, coronavirus cases have risen exponentially, even as the country reopens its economy, adding to the risk Filipinos take when they step out of their homes. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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