Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare professionals have continued to be at the service of all Filipinos and performed their duty nonstop with little to no respite. This is what the new normal looks like for Dr. Eva Maria Cutiongco-de la Paz, who remains committed to fulfill her obligations to the country and her institution during this time of public health crisis.
In 2019, Dr. Eva was named one of the 10 Metrobank Foundation Outstanding Filipinos. She dons many hats as an educator, physician, and researcher. With this, work has never halted and series of engagements have constantly required her attention, especially now that she is actively involved in efforts to aid the government in the COVID-19 response.
She revealed what she considers her anchor during this period. “I am still overwhelmed with grief upon losing friends and colleagues in the medical profession due to COVID-19. What keeps me going is knowing that despite our present circumstances, God is sovereign and in control,” said Dr. Eva.
As the Executive Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, the greatest obstacle Dr. Eva currently faces is accepting that she cannot always be physically where the action is. This is due to her lung condition which puts her in the high-risk category for COVID-19.
With the aid of technology, however, she can perform all her crucial work. She oversees the NIH COVID-19 Testing Laboratory operations, trains Genetics fellows using the telegenetics platform, and coordinates UP’s training assistance to the Department of Health (DOH) and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM). She also meets with donors and constituents online, serves as a keynote speaker in webinars, and even presents in the Senate public hearing on education and health.
Dr. Eva Maria Cutiongco-de la Paz is a Professor 10 of the College of Medicine and Executive Director of the National Institutes of Health both in University of the Philippines Manila. She also serves as Director for the Health Program of the Philippine Genome Center. She was named one of the 2019 Metrobank Foundation Outstanding Filipinos.
It took a village to build a COVID-19 Testing Lab
The UP Manila National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) name has been doing rounds in the media recently, and rightly so. The institution is one of the first responders to the country’s call for an expanded COVID-19 testing capacity.
All hands were on deck as, within a span of two laborious weeks, Dr. Eva and her fellow doctors set up the stringent measures required for a testing laboratory. They immediately started testing for COVID-19 upon passing the necessary assessments.
Indeed, the NIH offered a silver lining just when the country needed it most. Dr. Eva has this to say about the work that her institution has achieved, “The NIH responded quickly and appropriately when the country needed testing labs at the start of the pandemic. It also had a mindset to be resourceful and always find a way to serve the testing needs of patients in the hospitals and quarantine centers.”
Frontliners working hard at the UP National Institutes of Health (NIH) COVID-19 Testing Laboratory
Putting up the laboratory, however, was only half the battle. During its first weeks of operation, the laboratory was efficiently run by around 30 volunteer staff from the NIH Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (NIMBB) who, despite their willingness to focus on the undertaking, all had to return to their respective projects after a certain period. This need for manpower prompted NIH to hire new staff who now comprise the new COVID-19 Testing Team through the Human Resource for Health Program of DOH.
The Laboratory frontliner volunteers who helped make sure that the UP NIH COVID-19 Testing Laboratory is ready to serve the people’s testing needs
Further, the laboratory does not have any budget of its own to perform the COVID-19 testing. Despite this, the team has conducted over 20,000 tests to date and not charged a single centavo. This was possible through the outpouring of support from the DOH, RITM, Philippine General Hospital, and several private donors that came in the form of swabs, kits, and other supplies crucial to testing. They were able to serve the PGH patients as well as 29 other hospitals and community quarantine centers within their area.
Receiving donations which help support the operations of the testing laboratory
Equipping a league of front liners
The abilities to test, trace, and treat are vital in curbing the spread of the pandemic. Aside from expanding the capability of existing laboratories and building new ones across the regions, proper training is required to equip all personnel who will handle the COVID-19 testing.
This is where the NIH as well as other UP institutes and centers also came in. Dr. Eva, together with volunteer faculty and research assistants from the NIH National Training Center for Biosafety and Biosecurity (NTCBB), UP Diliman NIMBB and UP Philippine Genome Center (PGC), created online modules for the DOH and RITM training assistance program. The online modules cover two important areas: biosafety and molecular biology techniques.
The Biosafety Education and Awareness Training (BEAT COVID-19) is designed to provide core concepts of basic biosafety and biosecurity practices including risk assessment, bio-containment facilities, as well as basics of personal protective equipment (PPEs), disinfection, sterilization and decontamination, and waste management of biological material.
The DOH designated the NIH NTCBB to be the training provider. To date, the training has graduated more than 2,688 trainees nationwide, many of whom are already employed as laboratorians in different accredited laboratories.
The UP COLlab, on the other hand, is the online learning lab for RT-PCR testing. This online course is composed of lectures designed to provide the conceptual framework as well as overview of the testing workflow and protocols needed to perform the RT-PCR based diagnostic test for COVID-19. This is then followed by hands-on training.
It has been provided by the University for free, along with food and training materials. The DOH has recognized these efforts and is now funding the implementation.
Combating this pandemic has truly necessitated concerted action. Dr. Eva believes that fortitude will also help Filipinos confront this health crisis. “We all need to be resilient—able to cope with adversity and use challenges to forge strength and prosperity. Although we are still in the middle of abnormal times, we should still be moving forward to find best ways to provide better health care for the next generation,” she said.
Dr. Eva’s story, as well the stories of other individuals and institutions dedicating their energy to combat the pandemic, tells the power of solidarity and shared purpose. The fight may be far from over but hope persists—it lies in every Filipino driven to extend a helping hand.