UST scientists: Metro Manila needs 15,000 tests a day to keep Covid-19 at bay

UST scientists: Metro Manila needs 15,000 tests a day to keep Covid-19 at bay

By Felipe Salvosa II | PressOne.PH
May 27, 2020
Manila, Philippines

Metro Manila will need a testing capacity of 15,000 a day and 1,800 contact tracers to suppress the Covid-19 outbreak, which could worsen as the country relaxes quarantine measures in June, according to scientists from the University of Santo Tomas (UST).

Researchers Bernhard Egwolf and Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. noted that unlike in New York City, an outbreak epicenter, early implementation of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila in mid-March saved thousands of lives and seemed to have flattened the curve of Covid-19 cases, but in a manner that was “not dramatic.”

The expected transition to the less stringent general community quarantine (GCQ) will lead to a further spike in the number of Covid-19 cases, according to projections of the “UST-CoV-2 Model,” an epidemiological model developed by Egwolf and Austriaco based on the DELPHI Model of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“[I]t is clear that the ECQ is struggling to suppress the pandemic, i.e., to drive the number of infected cases down to zero. At this rate, the model predicts that the total number of cases in Metro Manila will continue to increase gradually and will not plateau for many months, though the forecasted number of active cases will also be decreasing,” the UST scientists said in a research brief posted on the university website.

“If the current quarantine measures are maintained, the forecasted number of active cases of COVID-19 will not fall below 1,000 cases until early September this year,” Egwolf and Austriaco said.

The spike in Covid-19 cases is not inevitable, however, and may be “offset with a rigorous tracking, testing, and tracing program that seeks to limit community spread by breaking chains of viral transmission,” they said.

“We acknowledge that national and local authorities have worked hard to increase the testing capacity in the Philippines in the past two months, and we commend them for their efforts,” they added.

Amid criticism over the country’s lack of mass testing capacity, Malacañan Palace spokesman Harry Roque on Monday said the Philippines hit a testing capacity of 32,100 per day on May 20, surpassing the target 30,000 per day.

Only about 8,000 tests are conducted daily, however, according to the Department of Health.

‘Focus on Manila, QC’

Citing recommendations from Harvard University, Egwolf and Austriaco said Metro Manila, home to 13 million residents, would need a testing capacity of 15,000 tests per day and 1,800 contact tracers “working in call centers scattered throughout the region, to control its local pandemic.”

Health authorities should focus containment in Manila and Quezon City, where Covid-19 cases were “several-fold” higher compared with other cities in the National Capital Region, they said.

Coronavirus cases will continue to rise for several months in the two cities, unlike in Mandaluyong, Makati and Parañaque that may see a plateau in July, August and September, respectively, Egwolf and Austriaco said.

“It is not clear why the ECQ has not been as effective in both the City of Manila and Quezon City as it has been in their neighboring municipalities, especially since the local authorities have worked hard to suppress their infection rates. They are not the top two most dense cities in the NCR so it is unlikely to be explained by appealing to population density alone,” they said.

Egwolf and Austriaco said their paper on the UST CoV-2 Model would be submitted for peer review soon.

Egwolf, a biophysicist and a member of the mathematics and physics faculty of UST, holds a doctorate in natural sciences from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and is a researcher at the UST Research Center for Natural and Applied Science.

Austriaco, a Dominican friar, has a doctorate in biology from MIT and theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is professor of biology and of theology at the Dominicans’ Providence College in Rhode Island, where he is in charge of a laboratory funded by the US National Institutes of Health. He is also a research fellow at the UST Center for Religious Studies and Ethics.

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Felipe Salvosa II is the editor of PressOne.PH and heads the journalism faculty of UST in Manila.