Twenty Philippine hospitals may begin their clinical trials in search for an effective COVID-19 treatment, the Department of Health said Sunday.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the trials, which can last four months, may begin if the hospitals already have stock of the off-label drugs used in the World Health Organization multi-country clinical trials.
Among the drugs that will be included in the trial are 1) remdesivir, 2) lopinavir and ritonavir combined, 3) two drugs plus interferon beta, and 4) chloroquine.
Some 500 patients in the critical stage of the disease are expected to take part in the trial. She said the trial may be expanded to more patients if necessary.
Vergeire also said there should be informed consent from the patients and the effects of using the drugs should be explained to them.
“What will happen to them while taking the medicines should be thoroughly explained,” she said.
Vergeire said that although some participating hospitals in the country may have the identified drugs in their current inventory, the WHO will still send shipments intended for the trial.
Vergeire said the study is in line with WHO’s rapid global search for drugs that can treat the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 2.5 million globally. More than 100 countries joined the solidarity trials.
Some hospitals are also testing the use of other medications and regimens, including convalescent plasma therapy, in a bid to cure COVID-19 patients. This involves the transfusion of plasma, the liquid component of blood, from a recovered patient to a sick patient.
Philippine General Hospital spokesman Dr. Jonas del Rosario has been appealing to COVID-19 survivors for plasma donations.
He noted that the antibodies of recoveries from this highly-infectious disease may help save patients who are still battling the virus, especially the severe and critical cases.
Much like other organizations around the world, the PGH sees plasma therapy as a possible stop-gap to hold the virus at bay while more complex treatments are developed.
“A vaccine is a year out, but what if we can use the antibodies of those who have already survived to strengthen the immune system of those still battling the virus?” said Del Rosario.
Since beginning the experimental treatment very recently, PGH has received over 90 inquiries with more than 21 passing the criteria and at least 19 having already donated plasma. At least five COVID-19 patients were able to receive transfusions.
“Right now, we are taking care of over 100 COVID-19 patients in the PGH, and some of those are severe and critical cases who have exhausted all other treatment options with no success. For them, plasma therapy could be the last resort. That’s why we’re looking for more donors,” said Del Rosario.
He said the plasma donation process for COVID-19 survivors is fairly straightforward.
Meanwhile, a group biotech and pharmaceutical experts said they are trying to develop and introduce purified antibodies for the prevention and treatment of coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) by the third quarter of 2020.
In a statement sent to the media, IG Biotech Group chairman Enrique Gonzales said they are working to develop the treatment and are on track to conduct clinical trials by mid-year.
With a vaccine for COVID-19 not likely to be commercially available for at least another year, IG Biotech Group, a joint venture between IP Biotech and fellow biotech company Secura International Corp., together with strategic partner VINS Bioproducts, “is working to fast-track development of an antibody-based prevention and treatment for COVID-19.”
Dr. Noel Miranda, former Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional coordinator for multi-sectoral pandemic preparedness and response and member of the scientific team of IG Biotech, said the treatment is intended to provide individuals, especially health care workers, front liners, and other high-risk individuals, a vital 30-day window of passive immunity to the virus, and to prevent symptoms from worsening in critical cases.
On Sunday, the DOH logged its second-largest number of recoveries at 70, bringing the total of those who have been cured to 862.
The DOH reported 102 new cases on Saturday and 285 on Sunday, bringing the total number of COVID-19 cases to 7,579. The department also reported seven new deaths on Saturday, and 17 on Sunday, bringing the total to 501.
Vergeire said it was difficult to say if the country has reached its peak because they continue to receive new cases every day.
“Right now, the caseload hovers between 100 and 200 every day,” she said,
“If we see a consistent decline in new virus cases everyday and there are more people who get well, then it’s much easier to say that, yes, we have peaked,” she added.
The Philippines had its biggest daily rise of COVID-19 infections on March 31 when it logged 538 cases. Since then, new cases reported daily in the country have dropped.
The number of health care workers infected with COVID-19 has risen to 1,101.
The tally includes 434 doctors, 400 nurses, 55 nursing assistants, 32 medical technologists and 21 radio technologists.
To date, 20 doctors and six nurses have died from COVID-19, she added.
The WHO earlier sounded the alarm on the number of Filipino health care workers getting sick of COVID-19.
Dr. Abdi Mahamud, COVID-19 incident manager for Western Pacific, said the Philippines could be considered an “outlier,” with health care workers accounting for 13 percent of total infections, compared to the regional average of 2 percent to 3 percent.
He said WHO is working with the DOH to determine the reasons that the Philippines has such a high percentage.
A party-list lawmaker on Sunday assailed the DOH for saying health care workers are contracting the COVID-19 virus in their communities and not due to the shortage of personal protective equipment in hospitals.
Deputy Minority Leader France Castro said washing hands “is very good in the time of COVID but not figuratively, when DOH and the Duterte administration only want to rid themselves of accountability for [their] lags, failures, and lapses.”
“The Duterte administration failed to prioritize to test health care workers in the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle who showed symptoms and are probable COVID-19 cases. The government also failed to swiftly procure PPEs and immediately distribute them, causing many health care workers to use makeshift PPEs, depend on private donors, buy from their own pockets or opt not use one and risking their own health,” Castro added.
Castro lamented the Department of Health only purchased one million PPE sets worth P1.8 billion on March 30, when the country was already well in the middle of the enhanced community quarantine. “As it is, the procurement was made and mistakes were made as proven by the purchase of substandard gloves,” Castro said.
“The Department of Health cannot simply dispute that health care workers contracted the COVID-19 virus due to PPE shortages and the fact is government did not provide what the health care workers needed to adequately face the COVID-19 battle. The DOH cannot blame our health care workers for government’s failure to prepare our public health care system and protect our health care workers from contacting the virus.”
The Filipino Nurses United, too, said the main reason for the alarming increase of health workers like nurses and doctors infected with COVID-19 is the lack of protection within their workplace and not exposure outside their workplace.
“The actual number of COVID-19 cases may even be higher given that aggressive mass testing has yet to be done among health workers,” said Maristela Abenojar, FNU president, in a statement.
In other developments:
- The Philippine Red Cross is set to open a COVID-19 laboratory in Manila in addition to two facilities that are already taking in patients for testing, its chairman and CEO, Senator Richard Gordon, said Sunday. In a Dobol B sa News TV interview, Gordon said the PRC’s third COVID-19 laboratory, located in its compound in Port Area, Manila, is only awaiting approval from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine to start conducting tests.
- Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the Philippines received P25 million worth of COVID-19 test kits from South Korea, to augment the country’s testing capacity. The test kits, which can do 35,000 tests, were donated by the South Korean government.