Testing will save lives and livelihoods

We are taking important steps forward in reviving the economy while fighting hard against COVID-19 at all fronts. Having undergone weeks of quarantine, we, indeed, have made great sacrifices, yet more will be asked from each of us still.

As an advisor to the president on entrepreneurship and as an entrepreneur, I strongly believe that the lockdown imposed by President Duterte in early March was timely and necessary. Chief Implementer Sec. Carlito Galvez and Deputy Chief Implementer Vince Dizon have proven to be an effective tandem, leading the way in setting up the much-needed quarantine centers and procuring all that is needed to prepare the country. Both have supported us and the private sector in helping improve the testing capacity of the Department of Health, which we are also responding to.

Through the Project ARK-PCR initiative, we have reached out to many private sector partners. Through their generous donations, we have raised funds for rapid antibody testing, PCR tests, and medical equipment that have already arrived from China last week. These important tests and tools are making their way to several hospitals around the country, helping them in their individual community battles, while bringing up the national testing capacity. Go Negosyo’s Project ARK-PCR Initiative and partner companies will increase the testing capacity of the country to an additional 24,000 swab tests per day by the end of June, complementing the government’s RT-PCR testing efforts. This, combined with the efforts between the government through DOH and the Philippine Red Cross, will help ramp up our PCR testing capacity to 50,000 tests per day by the end of June.

Helping in combatting COVID-19, Project ARK is now joined by close to 300 companies bringing in about 1.2 million antibody rapid test kits. These will be used to help identify those with the disease and direct them to the appropriate health facilities for treatment. This has been effective as well in providing us granular data to help us plan the next steps as we slowly reopen the economy.

Our next steps will be based on understanding risk and outcomes, safety, and possibilities. And we can make the best decisions using data that are collected and shared. Every day we learn new things about this disease - how it affects the body, how it survives and attacks, and how it targets the most vulnerable. And this is why testing, tracing, and treatment are so important. With more data, we can achieve greater visibility and our decisions can be guided accordingly by facts and science.

If the lockdown was a sweeping first step in mitigating the virus, our next line of action will be more surgical and strategic, because any succeeding flare-ups will be dealt with swiftly. It is critical that we test, trace, and treat. Project ARK has taken the steps to boost testing, while the government has made great strides, under the leadership of Sec. Galvez, to construct more COVID-19 facilities. On contact tracing, a study estimates that we can reduce the need for testing by a factor of 10, and this has also been relayed to Congress.

As we prepare for life after lockdown, the UP Pandemic Response Team has also proposed using a simplified computation based on a Time Varying Reproduction Number, or R(t), which measures “how fast the virus is growing” and “the average number of people who become infected by an infectious person.” The US uses this approach in its decision-making, and its data is shared in real-time on rt.live. We can adopt the same approach here. Though not an exact science, it is useful and can be used by the IATF and LGUs until a cure or vaccine is found. This approach is in line with my recommendations to the President, made a few weeks ago, in shifting towards barangay-level lockdowns, which empowers local leaders to protect their people and communities.

Let us be optimistic and proactive. This is why we are vigilant, pushing for more testing at companies and LGUs to help create greater visibility. We will also conduct a seroprevalence test on top of what companies are doing. The data gathered will allow better mapping of infections all over the country, and it will serve as the basis for the decisions by LGU leaders with regards to lockdowns. However, this time, the lockdown approach will be more focused, opting for selective barangay quarantines so that commerce can continue.

As we gain more information and better understand the disease, we must constantly evaluate and recalibrate our plans and methods. Again, we do not know everything about this disease and are adjusting strategy as more information comes in. We are making the best decisions now based on what we know and have now.

The efforts of both the government and the private sector are basically focused on saving lives and livelihoods. The only way we can open the economy safely is to create greater visibility. Creating visibility is to do a lot of testing. Targeted mass testing is our approach, whether we use RT-PCR or rapid test kits, whatever testing methods are available out there that give us good visibility is what we have to do.