Video recorded and edited by KIM Quilinguing, UP Media and Public Relations Office, with additional materials from RVTM and Manila HealthTek, Inc.
On February 13, 2020, President Rodrigo R. Duterte addressed the nation on television as fears over the spread of the Novel Coronavirus 2019 or Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) gripped many. Speaking in a video message recorded at the Malacañang Palace, he assured the public that his administration was taking all the necessary measures to limit the spread of the disease. “I call on our people to remain calm, vigilant, responsible. And I also ask [for] your trust and cooperation, support as we face the challenge,” he said.
Earlier during the day, the Manila HealthTek Inc. posted on its official Facebook page a photo of the COVID-19 test kit developed by experts from the Philippine Genome Center and the National Institutes of Health of the University of the Philippines Manila.
The GenAmplify Corona Virus Disease-2019 rRT PCR Detection Kit was the product of several days and hours of intensive research and testing by experts from the University who built upon the genome sequence of COVID-19, made available by the World Health Organization on its website.
According to PGC Executive Director Cynthia Palmes-Saloma, the kit was made possible after genetic experts from others countries used Next Generation DNA Sequencing in trying to understand the nature of the COVID-19 virus. Among the facilities of the center is its DNA Sequencing Laboratory which was established in 2013.
DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is the building block of every living being. These molecules contain the genetic makeup of an organism, it is composed of nucleotides guanine, cytosine, thymine and adenine (G-C-T-A). Sequencing is the process of determining the order of the nucleotides in a DNA.
For the molecular biologist, Dr. Saloma, Next Generation Sequencing is essential in understanding the nature of living things, including viruses and bacteria. And it can even be used to determine the identity and properties of unknown organisms. “If there’s an emergency and there’s a totally unknown organism, and some might say that it’s a virus, it’s bacteria, or it’s an unknown, then Next Generation Sequencing will come in handy,” she said. The same process, she quickly added, was used in understanding the Novel Coronavirus from Wuhan, China.
Next Generation Sequencing, also known as Massive Parallel Sequencing, is a process by which several DNA samples can be simultaneously sequenced using computers, which produces more results when compared to the Sanger Sequencing, which can only process one DNA fragment at a time.
For Dr. Benedict Maralit, since DNA is found in all living organisms, it can be used in determining the nature of a bacteria or a virus. DNA sequencing is, he said, “a manner of characterizing DNA.” Through this method of analysis, he and his team can determine if a DNA is unique or comparable to those of other organisms. As head of the PGC’s DNA Sequencing Core Facility, he leads the center’s unit, which takes the first crack at the specimens which are sent to their institution for analysis.
After a specimen is sequenced, it is then forwarded to another unit of the PGC called the Core Facility for Bioinformatics. The unit, according to its supervisor, Dr. Jan Michael Yap, will subject the sequenced samples to a verification process to establish its proper attributes.
In the case of the COVID-19, Yap, who is also the director of the Computational Genomics and System Biology Program, will head a team which will help in the process of sequenced DNA specimen to determine if a patient under investigation (PUI) has contracted the virus or not. He said, “We will verify if, with some degree of confidence, the person has a confirmed infection of NCOV [COVID-19].”
With the PGC, NIH and Manila HealthTek, Inc. successfully creating a locally made COVID-19 test kit, the center’s Deputy Executive Director Raul Destura has instructed his team to stockpile the produced kits in anticipation of a possible need by the country’s public health agencies. “We are currently manufacturing them, just in case,” he said.
The test kit produced by the collaboration has been presented to the Department of Health and is currently undergoing review and evaluation.
Related: FDA OKs COVID-19 test kits developed by UP scientists
An infectious disease specialist and microbiologist by training, Dr. Destura, who is also affiliated with both the NIH and is the president and the chief executive Officer of Manila HealthTek, Inc. said they initially have started stockpiling kits for at least 1,000 persons. With a grant from the Department of Science and Technology, they are planning on adding more kits in anticipation of the possible need for testing more persons.
The Manila HealthTek, Inc. is a company founded by Destura as an avenue for research and development efforts in creating affordable, portable and reliable testing kits for infectious diseases. He considers it as a spin-off from the studies conducted by experts in the university, where they can see the practical application of their research. An earlier test kit for dengue he and his team developed, is also being produced by the company under a license granted by the university’s Board of Regents.
For now, Destura, Yap, Maralit and Saloma, prepare for the worse that COVID-19 might bring, as they continue to stockpile on test kits, observe the virus and identify possible avenues where they can extend their assistance to other government agencies.
As of March 10, 2020, the DOH has recorded a cumulative total of 725 patients under investigation (PUIs), of which 657 have been discharged from hospitals. There are now 24 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, with one resulting in the death of a Chinese tourist. Worldwide, the virus has spread to more than 104 countries and territories, resulting to 109,577 cases and 3,809 deaths. Majority of the cases are still in China, with significant numbers in South Korea, Italy and Iran.