In a pandemic caused by a highly contagious virus such as COVID-19, laboratory capacities for testing in any country is very crucial in order to immediately identify and isolate confirmed cases to facilitate early interruption of transmission. Since the outbreak was declared in the Philippines, the World Health Organization (WHO) country office, with support from a grant from ECHO has worked closely with both the Department of Health (DOH) and local governments to ensure establishment and accreditation of testing laboratories across the regions.
The European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) has been funding WHO in the inspection and assessment of laboratory capacities for testing COVID-19 samples.
In May 2020, there were 23 real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR) laboratories in major regions. By 19 October, there were already 112 laboratories operating in all regions that were able to test samples. It is also notable that 35 licensed cartridge-based PCR or GeneXpert laboratories are now operating in all regions except Western and Eastern Visayas. Since January, 4,397,365 samples have been tested in the country.
Because of a shortage of accredited and properly equipped laboratories, in the first 4 months of the response, the test backlogs ran into thousands due to a high demand for testing. This was particularly true for the two early hot spots of transmission, the National Capital Region and Cebu City in the Central Visayas Region, where hundreds of cases were recorded between April and June 2020. To fast-track accreditation of new rRT-PCR laboratories, WHO supported DOH by acquiring additional qualified assessors.
With the increase in licensed labs, WHO and DOH worked to provide competency and proficiency training. The WHO team specifically responded to the need for lab proficiency in COVID diagnostics in Zamboanga City in Mindanao, where a large cluster of infections were recorded between June and July.
In other places that had to send their samples to another province or region for testing, patients had to stay longer in quarantine facilities as they waited for their test results. By October, however, the backlogs had been managed and an average waiting time was reduced to five (5) days for release of test results.
WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe emphasized the importance of strengthening lab testing capacities in the country, “Strong laboratory testing is crucial for early detection, confirmation of diagnosis, contact tracing and isolation of infected individuals and probable cases. With ECHO and other global donors continuing to support accurate and timely sharing of testing data, we can do our part to ensure that further transmission of COVID-19 in the Philippines is prevented.”
WHO also provided the National Reference Laboratory (NRL) and 5 other subnational laboratories with reagents, test kits, extraction kits and other consumables. This was instrumental in maintaining the quality of laboratory testing despite the surge of test samples collected during the earlier months of the response.
At present, with the newly-recorded increase in cases in Mindanao, WHO Philippines has shifted its focus to expanding lab testing capacities in the southern part of the country. With advice from WHO, hiring of technical consultants for assessment, operations and logistics management continue to be a high priority for the DOH. There are still over a hundred private and public laboratories to be accredited for COVID-19 testing capacities.