Genomics in the time of COVID-19

| Written by KIM G Quilinguing

Screenshot from the Philippine Genome Center’s virtual conference, “OnePGC”, held on December 10. Watch the replay here.


COVID-19 is a wake-up call not only for Filipinos in general, but for everyone to appreciate the significance of genomics. This was how Philippine Genome Center (PGC) Executive Director Cynthia Palmes-Saloma encapsulated the Center’s activities and role in the year of the pandemic.


PGC Executive Director Cynthia Saloma during the Philippine Genome Center’s virtual conference, “OnePGC”, held on December 10. Watch the replay here. 


On December 10, Saloma and her colleagues from all over the country, particularly in the PGC’s satellite units in Iloilo for the Visayas, and Davao for Mindanao, gathered virtually for an online conference where they looked back at the challenges the Center confronted, and its growth despite the limitations resulting from the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Since dedicating much of its facilities and efforts to research and testing for COVID-19, the Center has been able to conduct tests for at least 40,000 individuals. Its units in Visayas and Mindanao have also trained more than 100 health professionals for testing as well.


PGC Visayas in action. Screenshots from the Philippine Genome Center’s virtual conference, “OnePGC”, held on December 10. Watch the replay here


For University of the Philippines President Danilo L. Concepcion, PGC’s efforts in the time of the pandemic exemplifies the theme of the conference, which was collaboration and unity. The activities of the Center reflect not only the fulfilment of its mandate, but also manifest the University’s commitment to serve the people through education, research and public service.

Department of Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato de le Peña paid tribute to the Center’s growth since 2009, highlighting how it has been at the forefront of the country’s efforts in genomics research and testing. He emphasized how PGC has continuously produced world class research and solutions.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque, meanwhile, underscored PGC’s research on COVID-19, and how it allowed the country’s policy-makers and health professionals to understand the virus better and enact measures that would limit its spread in the country. He also praised the Center’s researchers and experts for how they were able to produce the locally made GenAmplify real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR) test kit.


PGC Mindanao. Screenshot from the Philippine Genome Center’s virtual conference, “OnePGC”, held on December 10. Watch the replay here.


Vice President for Academic Affairs Cynthia Rose Bautista for her part praised how the PGC has continued its service during the pandemic, praising its testing capabilities and thanking the members of the UP community and its friends for supporting the Center in its efforts.

For DOST Undersecretary Rowena Guevara, the Center’s efforts during the pandemic reflected a fulfilment of its mission of conducting research in genomics and bioinformatics in the service of the people. The test kit produced by PGC’s experts and researchers, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, marks a significant achievement in the fight against the virus.


Screenshot from the Philippine Genome Center’s virtual conference, “OnePGC”, held on December 10. Watch the replay here.


Presenting the PGC’s DNA Sequencing and Core Facility activities for the year, Dr. Benedict Maralit talked of how their unit became the birthplace of the Center’s COVID-19 testing laboratory. Through the efforts of its personnel, and with the support of generous donors, it was established and later earned its International Organizations for Standardization (ISO) certification in April this year. In July, the laboratory became fully operational.

Maralit also related how they were involved in the field testing of the GenAmplify kits and how their efforts helped in eventually having the locally made test kit accredited by the Food and Drug Administration.

For Dr. Marc Edsel Ayes of the PGC’s Clinical Genomics Laboratory, COVID-19 jumpstarted the activities of his unit. Prior to the pandemic, the laboratory had been created to conduct studies in cancer, cardiology, diabetes and metabolism, pharmaco-genomics and mental health.

The pandemic, Ayes said, reoriented the laboratory and required its personnel to focus on COVID-19, as the virus needed to be studied and understood in the most immediate time. He added that at present they are able to process an average of 258 samples a day, with a maximum capacity of between 600 to 800 samples. They run on a 24-hour operation, able to conduct COVID-19 biosurveillance and research, elective swabbing services, and community mass screening.


Screenshot from the Philippine Genome Center’s virtual conference, “OnePGC”, held on December 10. Watch the replay here


Speaking on bioinformatics and genomic epidemiology, Core Facility for Bioinformatics Director Jan Michael Yap talked of how PGC has pursued biosurveillance in order to document diseases and use the information for the benefit of the country’s health system and policy makers.

While the PGC is currently capable of performing its biosurveillance function, Yap suggested strengthening this unit of the Center, as the COVID-19 experience, he said, highlighted the need for more equipment, tackling some ethical considerations in the acquisition of data, as well trained personnel who can process and analyze the data gathered for understanding a particular disease, organism or pandemic.

The PGC’s Deputy Executive Director Raul Destura concluded the conference by explaining the Center’s game plan for the next six years. With its mandate to conduct research in genomics and bioinformatics, the Center, he said, will continue to establish new linkages and collaboration with local and international organizations.


PGC Deputy Executive Director Raul Destura answers questions from the media [photo above] during the press conference for the GenAmplify test kits, which held early this year prior to the lockdown [photo below]. Photo from the UPMPRO.


With the pandemic in mind, Destura said, the PGC would continue to conduct research and public service as a unit of the University.

The Philippine Genome Center is a research and public service unit of the University of the Philippines, created in 2009. It is mandated to conduct research in genomics and bioinformatics, as well as establish collaboration with other research and educational institutions.