President Rodrigo Duterte announced Monday what he described as the largest economic aid package in Philippine history to assist informal sector workers and people whose income has dried up amid a health crisis that has virtually shut down the country.
Also on Monday, the government said it had approved the use of five rapid test kits for detection of the fast-spreading COVID-19, and China announced it was sending a team of medical experts to the Philippines, even as questions lingered over defective diagnostic kits sent from China.
Nationwide infections from the virus reached 1,546 Monday, almost doubling from the 803 reported Friday. These include at least three senators and the country’s military chief.
“The government is now launching the widest and largest social protection program in our country’s history,” Duterte said in a late-night broadcast. “We have allotted 200 billion pesos (U.S. $3.9 billion) for low-income households badly affected in this current crisis.”
He said the package was aimed at workers in the informal sector, those who live below subsistence levels and those in “no work, no pay” occupations. His economic team was also developing programs to help farmers and fishermen, as well as small to medium businesses, Duterte said.
“We are doing everything we can,” Duterte said, as he paid tribute to health care workers on the frontlines, including at least nine doctors who have died of the disease. Duterte said he had ordered his government to prioritize medical supplies, including personal protective equipment.
The death toll from the virus as of Monday afternoon had reached 78, as millions in the country’s main Luzon island entered a third week of a forced quarantine.
Rapid test kits: backup required
Meanwhile, the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that five rapid test kits had been greenlighted for use in the country, but its director general cautioned that anyone receiving such a test should have a second confirmatory test for either a positive or negative result.
“The rapid test kits will yield a faster result compared to PCR-based kits, but it is important that a trained health professional will evaluate and interpret the results,” Eric Domingo said, referring to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which detect viral particles in individuals.
The FDA has already approved 17 PCR-based test kits. Rapid test kits yield faster results compared to PCR kits, but the government has been very cautious in using these because they “measure antibodies and not the viral load” itself, Domingo explained.
“The body takes time to develop antibodies and this might give a negative result for patients who have been infected but have not yet developed antibodies,” he said.
“A positive result due to cross reactions with other bacteria or viruses is also possible, which is why a confirmatory PCR-based test is still required.”
Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine defense secretary, who was supposed to help lead a nationwide task force against the disease, has gone under quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19.
Duterte himself and all his security guards have been advised to self-isolate as a precaution, after the president was potentially exposed. Duterte began a quarantine period at Malacanang Palace on Saturday, his 75th birthday, according to reports.
Chinese medical experts en route
China on Monday said it was dispatching a team of medical experts to the Philippines to help in its COVID-19 containment efforts.
They will provide “technical advice on epidemic prevention and control as well as share medical treatment experience,” the Chinese Embassy said in a statement.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III pledged to coordinate with the embassy “to make sure the work of the medical expert team goes smoothly.”
At the weekend there was confusion over a statement by Department of Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, who had said that test kits earlier sent from China were only “40 percent accurate” based on standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
These kits were now in storage while being tested, she said.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila reacted sharply to Vergeire’s remarks.
“The Chinese Embassy firmly rejects any irresponsible remarks and any attempts to undermine our cooperation in this regard,” the embassy said in a statement.
It denied having donated the test kits in question, and the health department subsequently clarified that those test kits were given by a “private foundation” and not the Chinese government. The embassy did not name the foundation.
“The test kits mentioned during the press briefing by the department [on] March 28, 2020, referred to another brand of test kit that was proposed to be donated by a private foundation,” the health department said.
Duque said there was nothing wrong with the test kits and even thanked Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian for the donation.
“Again, your test kits BGI and Sansure Biotechnology are very good and up to the standards as those, which were donated by WHO and approved by our RITM. Again, our gratitude and appreciation to you and the Chinese government,” Duque said in his message to Huang.
Sen. Richard Gordon, who is also Philippine Red Cross chairman, said the agency had raised money to purchase equipment from entities identified by China.
“We have to work with the authorized entity, and that is the government, and if they say the tests are not accurate or are very poor, then we are in touch with the Chinese authorities. They will have to replace it or return our money,” Gordon said.
He noted that the Chinese had already replaced inaccurate machines bought by Spain, a country that has been hit hard by the disease.
China, once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, is moving to polish its battered image by scrambling to donate medical equipment and other resources to countries reeling from the COVID-19 outbreak.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila and Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines contributed to this report.