The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally issued an approval for the commercial use of the GenAmplify™ Corona Virus 2019 (COVID-19) rRT PCR Detection Kit developed by Dr. Raul Destura of the Manila HealthTek, Inc. The FDA Advisory No. 2020-513 was released today, three days after the completion of its field validation study last April 1, 2020. 

The test kit is the first locally manufactured test kit for COVID-19 and was developed in collaboration with the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) and the University of the Philippines - National Institutes of Health (UP-NIH) with support from the Department of Science and Technology - Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD). 

The approval issued by the FDA signals the start of its roll-out to several hospitals in and out of Metro Manila starting on April 4. 

Dr. Destura and his team are currently working on the production of 120,000 tests - 26,000 of which will be distributed by the DOST to the Philippine General Hospital, Makati Medical Center, The Medical City in Pasig City, Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City, Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City, and Baguio General Hospital Medical Center in Baguio City for field implementation from April 4 to April 25. The remaining 94,000 tests will be sold commercially by the Manila HealthTek Inc.

The COVID-19 detection kit was developed to provide accessible and affordable testing for the Filipino as a response to the growing worry on the risks posed by the infection towards public health. By utilizing a one-step multiplex real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) platform, each test is projected to cost P1320 which is significantly cheaper than its foreign counterparts. 

In the press briefing held for the test kit last March 12, DOST Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña cited the project as an example of solutions brought by R&D that help the country achieve its national goals and address emergencies or crises.

Written by: Jwynne Gwyneth Macan
Contributor: Catherine Joy Dimailig

"Putting it on is easy. But removing is scary."

It must be in the correct order, yet it’s difficult to do. They must grasp the gown and pull it away so ties break. Then gloves must be peeled at the same time too. They’ll lift the headband, grasp the ties of their masks, and remove it without touching the front. They must remove everything without touching the contaminated parts.

And if you do the wrong sequence, you can get infected.”

This is how Dr. Edsel Salvaña describes the donning and doffing of PPE, his unusual routine for the past weeks. As an infectious disease specialist, he is seeing suspected COVID-19 patients at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH). He is also a member of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) that advises the Department of Health and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF).

Until March 14, two days after one of his patients died from pneumonia, he became a Person Under Investigation (PUI).

It took six days for the results to return and I was still coughing,” narrated Dr. Salvaña while completing his 14-day quarantine during our online interview. His typical day though would still be pretty busy, with multiple patient care, teaching, administrative work and research work.

It's challenging to multitask but we need to fulfill these roles since there aren't enough people with the right skills to go around,” he added. Currently, Dr. Salvaña is the Director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at UP-National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also serves as a professor and research coordinator at the PGH.

On normal days, rarely do we see health workers express their emotions in caring for their patients. During these times, however, a lot of frontline health workers use different platforms to tell us how they feel being in the frontline in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a doctor who has recently been a PUI, Dr. Salvaña has this to say: “
It was really scary. Two of my patients died and they both tested positive. When I developed a sore throat, I dropped everything and had myself admitted because I did not want to expose my family.”

Things were a lot different for him though back in 2008, for after serving as Chief Fellow at the Division of Infectious Diseases in University Hospitals of Cleveland, he returned to the Philippines as a Balik Scientist of the Department of Science and Technology through the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD).

The health community would say that Dr. Salvaña is a very important person in the field of HIV research and medicine. Upon his return as a Balik Scientist, he recognized the HIV epidemic in the country, and was heavily involved in training doctors to treat HIV, raising awareness, and successfully lobbying the policymakers to declare an AIDS pandemic. TED talk even wrote that he has been a “national force in the formulation of HIV treatment guidelines, campaigning against stigma, and raising awareness.”

Despite his numerous experiences in facing HIV patients, and while he knows pandemics in theory, he stressed that there is nothing like a real on to make you appreciate how devastating they can be. He noted “
I don't think anything has prepared us for this. My knowledge of infectious diseases enabled me to project very clearly in my head what would happen if we did not act early. If our health system is overwhelmed, thousands could die.” He added that this has helped him advise the IATF, and said he is glad they listened.

This is not his first time working with policymakers. Currently, he is also the head of the subcommittee for HIV of the Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, and was an institutional representative at the Global Fund Country Coordinating Mechanism. He has led the formulation of local clinical practice guidelines for the treatment of opportunistic infections in HIV, and has established the first HIV fellowship in the country.

It also helped that I told them [IATF] that every disaster movie begins with everyone ignoring a scientist. They didn't ignore me and they listened. Hopefully we have changed the ending,” Dr. Salvaña, on being a member of the TAG said. He has done research on a pandemic before. He studied the molecular epidemiology of the A(H1N1) influenza, analyzing hundreds of virus samples from the 2009 to 2010 epidemic.

During our interview, Dr. Salvaña mentioned that it’s “super scary” to be a front line health worker during this pandemic. When asked about how he feels during this crisis, he has this to say: “
Well, this is what I trained for. It's always scary, but it's also exciting because you know the skills you acquired during training are being put to good use and can potentially save a lot of lives.”

While most must know by now that doctors face a multitude of risks by serving in the front lines, we’re still curious as to why they risk their lives to serve the people. And Dr. Salvana told me, “
I've been a government scholar since high school. I am Philippine Science High School Batch 1992, an Oblation Scholar at UP Diliman, and I did my medical training at the UP College of Medicine. After training further in the United States, I came home as a long-term Balik Scientist. So I've always felt the need to give back. I'm just really lucky that what I do is useful and beneficial to the country.

What should be the right word though, to describe how it must be a happy and sad feeling, for someone to offer his life to his country. He is just one of the thousands of our frontline health workers who repetitively do the donning and doffing of PPEs in the correct sequence to avoid getting infected. 

Thankfully, Dr. Salvaña’s test turned out negative for COVID-19 infection. After his quarantine, he will still continue to care for patients, coordinate donations, and do research work just like his routine weeks before. 

As of March 31, the Philippines lost twelve of its brave doctors to COVID-19. Despite this, Dr. Salvaña has this to say to his fellow frontline workers: “I know you are scared, just like me. But we are the only thing standing between this monster and our families and friends. This is what we are trained for. Some of us may die. But we die doing our duty and on our terms. Whatever happens, we will make a difference.”

"I am glad that I am back to dancing without knee pains,” said Ms. Estela Ababao, 64, when asked how Axis Knee System changed her life.

As Estela recalls, for 13 years before having knee problems, she never missed a day at the dance studio. Aside from being a way to relieve stress from a day of doing house chores, dancing is also her way to stay fit.

After developing degenerative arthritis five years ago, dancing became really challenging for Estela. Her movement became severely limited that even walking and climbing stairs became arduous activities. According to Estela, the excruciating knee pains brought her sleepless nights which made her hopeless that she cannot go back to her favorite activity again.

One day while browsing through Facebook, Estela came across the Axis Knee System. She became interested with Axis Knee because its price is half compared to existing knee replacement implants in the market. What fascinated her more is the fact that the technology is locally made by a Filipino, Dr. Ramon Gustilo and Engr. Jude Sasing. The Axis Knee is made to fit the Asian knee-sized, thus, promises faster recovery. She did some research and found that she can get her surgery in The Medical City, Ortigas, Pasig City.

Last 25 January 2019, Estela underwent the knee replacement surgery using the Axis Knee System with the help of Dr. Herminio Valenzuela, Dr. Adriel Eulalio Guerrero, and Dr. Marie Antionette Dizon. A day after her surgery, Estela started her physical therapy which lasted for three months. Then, she’s fully recovered within six months.
Now, Estela has been able to return to her zumba and ballroom dancing sessions without any knee-pains. “I am able to do what I do best without being restricted by pain,” she said.

Grateful that she was able to find an affordable, quality solution to her health problem, Estela salutes all Filipino inventors whose works are for the benefit of all. She said, “Maraming salamat sa mga Pilipinong imbentor. Ngayon alam ko na bakit mahalaga ang research.”

Currently, the Axis Knee System invented by Dr. Gustilo and Engr. Sasing is being manufactured by the Orthopaedic International, Inc., and continues to provide comfort to Filipinos around the country. The Philippine Council for Health Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology supported the development of this technology to make life better for Filipinos.

To help in the country's battle against COVID-19 , the Department of Science and Technology Regional Office IV-A (DOST IV-A) and the Department of Science and Technology - Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD) deployed 106 units of RxBox to the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) which is one of the designated COVID-19 referral centers in Luzon.

Developed by Filipino researchers from UP Manila and UP Diliman, with support from DOST-PCHRD, RxBox is a biomedical device capable of measuring a patient’s temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, uterine contractions, and electrocardiogram readings. The RxBox units were manufactured in partnership with IONICS EMS Inc., a local manufacturing company based in Laguna.

The device was originally intended to facilitate identification of patients needing management of chronic non-communicable diseases and to support maternal and child health care in Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas (GIDAs).

Specific to the country’s COVID-19 response, RxBox will be used for bedside monitoring of vital signs, oxygen saturation, and electrocardiogram readings of patients diagnosed with COVID-19, especially those in severe or critical conditions who need continuous monitoring. The use of the RxBox device can reduce contact between patients diagnosed with COVID-19 and healthcare workers, as it provides an efficient way for healthcare workers to monitor multiple patients at once.

DOST IV-A, the implementing agency of the ongoing RxBox 1,000 Roll-out Project, will coordinate with DOST regional offices for identification of other COVID-19 referral centers where the remaining units of RxBox may be distributed.

The Feasibility Analysis of Syndromic Surveillance using Spatio-Temporal Epidemiological Modeler (FASSSTER) will undergo enhancements to create a predictive model for COVID-19 which allows forecasting of possible cases in a given area at a specified period of time. Data generated from this model will support the decision making of the Department of Health, local government units, and healthcare facilities, in terms of resource planning and other measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Developed by Dr. Ma. Regina Justina E. Estuar of Ateneo de Manila University and her team, with support from the Department of Science and Technology’s Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD), FASSSTER serves as a hub for different data sources, providing a rich layout of integrated information that facilitates understanding of the spread of diseases.

At the moment, FASSSTER is used for creating predictive models and visualizing possible scenarios of outbreaks of Dengue, Typhoid Fever, and Measles, at specified time periods. It uses data from the Department of Health’s Philippine Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (PIDSR) system, Electronic Medical Records, and SMS-based reports of primary care facilities.

The latest addition to the technology is its TUGON feature, an SMS-based reporting feature which allows staff from Rural Health Units and Barangay Health Stations to report cases of Dengue, Measles, and Typhoid Fever through text commands. 

To date, FASSSTER had been deployed and tested in the Department of Health Regional Office VI where 17 Rural Health Units (RHUs) have been trained in the use of the SMS-based reporting system for surveillance of Dengue, Typhoid Fever, and Measles.