Editorial: Again, science

·4 min read

THE memorandum signed by Executive Secrtetary Salvador Medialdea on June 5, 2021, extending the diversion of Cebu-bound international flights to the capital’s airport sends a message of firmness on the part of the National Government’s decision to stick to the protocol already laid out by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases concerning in-bound overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs). The extension goes until 11:59 p.m. of June 12.

“To ensure,” the memo states, “that upon the resumption of international flights” the testing protocols of the IATF “will be fully and seamlessly implemented.”

Along with the tug-and-pull of varying protocols between the IATF and Cebu’s local governments, came views that seem to unfortunately reduce the exchanges into a political game, when it shouldn’t. That it is the Department of Health (DOH) that is pushing for the proper implementation of the 14-day quarantine (10 days in a facility, and the remaining four days in the traveler’s final destination) must be clear enough to everyone in this seeming free-for-all to reconsider that there is a whole science that dictated this protocol.

The Cebu version requires a swab test on Day 1 or on the day of arrival of the OFWs and ROFs, who have to wait for three days for the results and may proceed to their destinations if negative. They would have to do self-quarantine at home for the rest of the 14-day requirement. The IATF protocol, on the other hand, requires an RT-PCR test only on the seventh day after arrival. The swab schedule is basically the core of the difference between the two versions.

So what does science say about when should be the best time to test someone after supposed exposure?

Even in the earlier months of the pandemic last year, experts could not decide as to when should be the most accurate time to test following exposure as human bodies react differently to the new coronavirus. By the way, a PCR test works by detecting genetic material of the Covid-19 virus in the nose and upper throat. However, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on false-negative rates after exposure “found that during the four days of infection prior to the onset, the probability of a false negative on the PCR test went from 100 percent on Day 1 to 67 percent on Day 4.” More interestingly, the study also found that even on the day individuals began showing symptoms, “the false negative rate was still 38 percent, dropping to 20 percent three days after the symptom onset.”

“All of this is why we’re not recommending that people make their decisions about their activities or contacts based on the results of a negative test shortly after possible exposure,” the MIT study said.

And here’s another catch: “The only thing that negative test can tell you is that, at that particular moment in time, your sample did not show viral levels high enough to be reliably measured. It does not mean you were not exposed and infected during your travels. It does not mean you were not exposed and infected after your arrival.”

The MIT conclusion merely represents what has been established by many other scientific studies even as early as last year. This, we believe, is where the IATF protocol is coming from. Only after a particular time since exposure can the virus be detected, and thus marking it on the seventh day.

One can only imagine how fragile the situation is while a number of countries are going through new waves of infection after the surge of more potent variants, some of which render some vaccine versions less effective. Consider also the effects of the new surge to their economies, supposedly reopening with oblivious optimism.

So why can’t we look at this painful and cautionary protocol as part of an economic investment, very much like holding your cards amid an uncertainty? The risks we take if we render our borders porous with relaxed rules are about just as high, as other struck countries have shown. We also have the sluggish journey of available vaccines into our shores to consider as well.

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