The Philippines said Friday it had received samples of the Japan-developed anti-viral drug Avigan and could soon begin clinical trials on COVID-19 patients in the country, which now has the highest number of cases in East Asia.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told a virtual news conference that clinical trials of the drug would be carried out soon after some documentation issues were sorted out. She did not elaborate what those were.
“The medicine is already here, and we are starting soon,” Vergeire said.
On Thursday, the Japanese Embassy in Manila said Tokyo had already delivered Avigan tablets for some 100 patients as part of emergency aid to nations heavily affected by the virus.
Avigan is the brand name for favipiravir, an anti-viral drug made by a unit of Japanese giant Fujifilm Holdings Corp. that is being touted as a likely treatment for COVID-19, as the world waits for development of a vaccine capable of preventing it.
It is among more than a dozen therapeutic drugs being tested or used to fight the virus, according to The New York Times, which lists it among a group of treatments that show some promising results in cells or animals that need to be confirmed in people.
On Friday, the Philippine health department reported 3,379 new infections, bringing the total number of COVID-19 positive cases here to 122,754 – the highest in the region so far, overtaking Indonesia. There were also 24 new deaths, with the toll now at 2,168.
Vergeire downplayed public concerns that hospitals might soon be so filled with infected people that doctors would need to begin prioritizing patients more likely to survive.
"We are doing everything possible so that we will not reach that point where we are going to decide who lives and who will not live," Vergeire said.
Earlier this year, Manila asked Tokyo to expand its clinical research on Avigan to the Philippines in its effort to find a potential treatment for COVID-19.
The government has been forced to re-impose a lockdown in Manila amid the rising cases here, and the extended closure of businesses caused the economy to shrink by 16.5 percent in the second quarter, its worst performance in decades, officials announced this week.
But presidential spokesman Harry Roque refused to accept the country as the new regional epicenter of the disease, saying that the high number of infections only meant that the government had been besting more.
“Because we have intensified our testing capacity, it’s not true that we have more cases than Indonesia,” Roque said. He said that Manila’s testing capacity was “three times” more advanced than that of Indonesia, which had recorded 121,226 cases and 5,593 deaths as of Friday.
“It's just that Indonesians don't know yet who among them are roaming with the virus,” Roque said. “At least, for us, we already know. So there is a basis for us (to say) it is false and inconclusive to say that the Philippines has more cases compared to Indonesia.”
He stressed that currently the Philippine has about 100 government-accredited COVID-19 testing laboratories, and that the total number of those tested has already reached 1.64 million.
With this increased capacity, Roque said the government can now isolate those already infected, and contact-tracing could be quickly done as well.
“Meanwhile, we are building more isolation centers,” he said, noting that many people who are infected may not have adequate spaces at home to self-quarantine.
“As Donald Trump said, for those who want to see lower figures, let’s stop testing,” he said. “But that is not our policy. Our policy is to further intensify testing so we can identify those with COVID-19 and isolate them, trace their contacts and heal them.”