Opinion

Testing for Omicron

Testing for Omicron

From the onset of the pandemic, there has been a critical component in containing COVID-19: testing. And from the start of the pandemic, this has been a problem in this country.

The situation in the early days of the pandemic was understandable: testing was available only at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine. The RITM had to send the specimens all the way to a disease reference laboratory in Melbourne, Australia for the results.

Nearly two years into this pestilence, there are more reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction tests available, in both swab and saliva versions, along with a wide range of rapid antigen tests that can be used at home. A local company, Manila HealthTek, has developed a reliable RT-PCR swab test.

Regular COVID testing, however, has not been seen, even during the two deadly surges last year, the first in summer driven by the Alpha and Beta variants, and the second beginning in August driven by Delta.

Even with the ongoing spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant, there are people who hesitate to get tested when possible symptoms emerge. Instead people first try to get rid of colds, cough, slight fever and body aches with ordinary medication, causing a temporary shortage of paracetamol and other analgesics.

For many, the reason for the hesitation to get tested is the high cost of the RT-PCR test, still the gold standard in COVID testing. This is the same reason people have been caught using fake RT-PCR test results to enter Boracay and other travel destinations.

The Philippine Red Cross, with its own molecular laboratories, offers the most affordable RT-PCR test, at P1,500 for the saliva-based. Its nasal swab test, at P2,800, is slightly pricier than Manila HealthTek’s P2,650. In private laboratories and hospitals, the cost of the RT-PCR test can range from P4,000 to P10,000.

Such amounts can constitute the monthly pay of a low-income earner. For such persons, Biogesic, Bioflu and Decolgen will look like the better options when Omicron symptoms emerge, even if it puts other household members at risk of infection.

Only free testing will make them find out with certainty if they have contracted COVID. In Metro Manila, some local government units offer free or subsidized testing to residents, or at least to indigents. San Juan provides free RT-PCR tests to all residents, eschewing antigen testing because false results could only lead to additional costs and aggravate the spread of infection. The national government will have to make RT-PCR tests more accessible to all.