How reliable is saliva testing?


FAIR COMMENT | Alito L. Malinao

Early this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized a new saliva test for COVID-19 that can be completed in just a few hours.

According to the FDA, the test has several advantages over traditional nasal swab testing; it is cheap, less invasive and can be performed without the need for certain testing components that have run short during the pandemic.

Unlike nasal swab tests, which require a special swab to be inserted deep inside the nose, the saliva test simply requires a person to spit into a collecting container, which is a less invasive (and likely less painful) process. The test can provide results in less than three hours.

Recently the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) has started saliva testing in the country. In its initial testing, Senator Richard Gordon, chairman and chief executive officer of the PRC, demonstrated to the public how the test is conducted. In its press statement, the PRC said that the saliva testing would cost only P2,000 as against the swab test which would cost from P3,500 to P4,000, a price not affordable to most Filipinos.

What the Red Cross is doing is a welcome development except that there are still questions about its reliability to detect COVID-19.

Although the DoH has initially approved the Red Cross request to conduct saliva testing it has now obviously changed its position.

In a press briefing DoH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire has asked the PRC to reconsider its plan to set up drive-through saliva testing centers in shopping malls.

“Although we commend these kinds of efforts, we need to look into the aspect of efficiency of such mass testing, we need to be more careful in having such initiatives,” Vergeire said.

Our own FDA has not yet approved saliva testing. In fact, the state-run Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) has not yet concluded its study on the method.

We have nothing against the Red Cross but we believe that initiatives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should be the sole responsibility of the DoH and the Inter-Agency Task Force for emerging infectious diseases (IATF-EID) which is chaired by Health Secretary Francisco Duque.

In our earlier column, we also questioned why the PRC is engaged in swab testing primarily for returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) under an agreement with PhilHealth.

The Red Cross has been doing an excellent job until PhilHealth failed to remit to the PRC the accrued fees for the testing of over P1 billion.

Because of Gordon’s non-stop complaints in the media about PhilHealth’s delayed payment, President Duterte called the PRC as “mukhang pera” or greedy.

PhilHealth president and CEO Dante Gierran, although assuring that it will settle all its financial obligations to the PRC, has pointed out some questionable provisions in the memorandum of agreement (MOA) signed by his predecessor Ricardo Morales with the PRC.

Indeed, there are some nagging questions on why the government had to hire the PRC in COVID-19 testing when this can be done by DoH facilities.

Instead of giving the PhilHealth money to the PRC it should be given to public hospitals so that they could provide free testing to the public. As of now there are only few public hospitals giving free COVID-19 testing.

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