Written by Migo Gonzalvo
Illustration by Kristi Seredica
Published 16 June 2021
“We can only do so much.”
There are 260 DOH-licensed testing centers in the Philippines, and 109 of them are in NCR alone. Some are private, some are public, but all are required to send results to DOH and other officials in order to manage the pandemic.
These numbers make it easy to assume that mass testing is upon us. However, effective mass testing requires strict collaboration of the government, testing facilities, organizations, and individuals. The challenge of setting up and running a molecular lab in the country is already a task in itself.
With the help of Dr. Greg Cortez III, Pathologist and Director of the Ateneo Molecular Pathology Laboratory (AMPLify), and Mr. Don Malabana, Operations Manager of AMPLify, we can better understand what it takes to set up and run a molecular lab, then look at the role it plays during the pandemic.
A COVID coincidence
AMPLify had originally been a backlogged molecular laboratory project of the Ateneo School of Science and Engineering (SOSE), which would have been used for research, technician training, and even undergrad classes in the far future, said Dr. Cortez.
But the sudden onset of COVID-19 inspired Fr. Joey Cruz, Vice President for University and Global Relations, to be a vehement advocate of COVID-19 testing for underprivileged communities. This was around April 2020 when testing sites in the country were extremely hard to come by.
Due to necessity, AMPLify had been a fast tracked project that shifted its focus from research to mainly COVID-19 testing. The project pushed through with the funding from Ateneo, and philanthropic organizations like Temasek foundation (a singapore-based non profit)—all with the intent of better COVID-19 management in the country
Despite the advent of strict construction protocols, numerous typhoons, overseas shipment of equipment, and low supply of qualified workforce, AMPLify was constructed and licensed by the Department of Health (DOH) with a biosafety level 2 (BSL2) containment status in less than a year, allowing it to offer RT-PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2 since late March 2021.
A refined template
AMPLify staff documenting data of samples (Image from: Mr. Malabana)
“The truth is molecular testing is fast in itself . . . results are ready in a day”, said Dr. Cortez. It is usually surveillance and documentation work that slows down work. Early on, this admin work had been laboriously done manually leading to results taking days to be released—which led to ineffective contact tracing. Luckily, labs like AMPLify now have access to electronic information systems for these tedious tasks. The information system serves as one of the main catalysts in reducing turnaround time from days into same-day results.
The daily workflow for the testing itself follows the DOH standardized template—a template that Dr. Cortez and Mr. Malabana commend for its efficiency and biosafety—which is strictly required from all licensed testing centers. (see here: https://ritm.gov.ph/establishing-a-molecular-diagnostics-laboratory/)
Armed with two purification systems, two PCR machines, and a team of nine competent workers, AMPLify—a private non profit testing center—is able to test up to 372 samples in a single shift, according to Mr. Malabana. These results are immediately sent to DOH, LGUs, and regional epidemiological centers.
AMPLifying pandemic resilience
AMPLify staff using micropipette to handle samples (Image from: Mr. Malabana)
With prices of RT-PCR tests ranging from 2500-5000 pesos, AMPLify has shown its cura personalis by extending its proceeds towards free testing for underprivileged communities.
Aside from PCR tests, AMPLify has delved into research for COVID-19 test kits by Dr. Keith Moore, which—if approved—allows one to test themselves at home. AMPLify is also currently looking into free testing initiatives with other organizations.
While the pandemic is far from being over, AMPLify has set an example for improvements in molecular labs that others can replicate. It is a reminder for all of us that while we can only do so much amidst this global pandemic, when given the opportunity to do more than what is expected and help others along the way, we should.
Even with these improvements in terms of testing capacity, mass testing is worthless without strict and effective contact tracing protocols, said Dr. Cortez. Asian countries with effective mass testing—such as Taiwan and Vietnam—did it early on with strict protocols, travel restrictions, and contact tracing.
At this point the country’s economy, from airlines to manangs/manongs at karinderyas, can’t afford these restrictions let alone mass testing. Furthermore, it would be a logistically daunting task that would require mass volunteering.
Even Dr. Cortez admits that what we need is a more proactive healthcare system that allows even the poorest of Filipinos to get tested. With this kind of information, better and more inclusive contact tracing protocols can be enforced.
Filipinos should be following protocols because of their awareness of high risk areas, not because of their fear of expensive hospital bills after acquiring COVID-19.
As vaccine rollout continues, people must remember that vaccines “don’t give absolute protection from initial exposure and mild/moderate symptoms of COVID”. Testing is meant for us to “determine whether COVID-19 protocols are being enforced and are working”, emphasized Dr. Cortez.
These reassert the perennial importance of COVID-19 protocols, and the substantial role of testing sites such as AMPLify during the vaccine rollout phase and beyond.
At this point in the pandemic, it is a matter of knowing your niche, living it out effectively, and extending help when possible. It takes one man’s decree to have thousands lynched or to have billions pocketed away, but it takes the efforts of all to end a viral pandemic.
- Department of Health. LICENSED COVID-19 TESTING LABORATORIES IN THE PHILIPPINES | Department of Health website [Internet]. Doh.gov.ph. 2012. Available from: https://doh.gov.ph/licensed-covid-19-testing-laboratories
- ateneo.edu. About AMPlify [Internet]. Ateneo de Manila University: School of Science and Engineering. 2020. Available from: https://www.ateneo.edu/ls/sose/amplify/about
- Elegant NX. How these 3 Asian countries have kept a lid on COVID-19 outbreaks [Internet]. Fortune. 2020. Available from: https://fortune.com/2020/12/28/asia-covid-success-stories-lessons-learned/