By Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES plans to start clinical trials next month of the Japanese anti-flu drug Avigan as a treatment for the novel coronavirus, according to the Department of Health (DoH).

The trials would start as soon as the agency’s ethics committee and the local Food and Drug Administration give their clearance, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said at an online news briefing on Tuesday.

Japan in April said it would send the drug manufactured by Fujifilm Toyama Chemical Co., Ltd. to 38 countries including the Philippines after clinical trials in other countries.

The Philippines is also participating in another clinical trial led by the World Health Organization.

Avigan has caught the world’s attention as a front-runner among treatment options for the illness it causes, COVID-19.

The drug has been given to more than 350 people in Japan, and as reports of its efficacy roll in, work has begun to ramp up production and carry out clinical trials aimed at obtaining government approval.

The drug had been effective in alleviating symptoms, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a news briefing on April 7, raising the prospect of offering Avigan to other countries.

The administration has included ¥13.9 billion ( $130 million) to boost the stockpile of Avigan in Japan’s 2020 supplementary budget proposal to an amount enough to treat two million people for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Fujifilm Toyama earlier announced a significant increase in production of the influenza antiviral drug. It said it would boost capacity from about 40,000 treatment courses a month to 300,000 a month by September.

DoH reported 1,150 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, bringing the total to 31,825.

The death toll rose to 1,186 after nine more patients died, while recoveries rose by 299 to 8,442, it said in a bulletin.

Of the new cases, 789 were reported in the past three days, while 361 were reported late, the agency said.

Five duplicates and two negative cases had taken out of the count, DoH said.

Ms. Vergeire said the agency was studying pooled testing to maximize the capacity of licensed laboratories.

The plan is under review by an ethics committee before pilot testing can start at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Muntinlupa City, Ms. Vergeire said at an online news briefing.

They were also checking the number of laboratories that could participate in the pooled testing based on their capacity and manpower.

Under the method, specimens from several people will be pooled in a single polymerase chain reaction or PCR test to cut costs.

Iloilo Rep. and former Health Secretary Jannette L. Garin on Sunday said pooled testing seeks to cut a test to as low as P300.

Earlier on Tuesday, Ms. Vergeire said DoH was cautious about declaring a flattening of the curve even if the infection rate has slowed. Some areas of the country such as Cebu City have also experienced a spike.

She said it now takes 7.26 days to double infections, longer than the two to three days before.

“There are indications of a flattening of the curve,” Ms. Vergeire said. “We we would like to be cautious in saying that because we are seeing spikes of cases in some areas of the country,” she added.

Ms. Vergeire said the country’s healthcare system had not been overwhelmed, with few coronavirus hotspots.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte last week ordered Cebu City in central Philippines to revert to a strict lockdown until June 30 because of rising cases.

The city had 3,471 active cases as of June 21, with 58 new infections reported that day.

Ms. Vergeire said there’s still a room for improvement in the government’s anti-COVID-19 response, including on data automation and analysis.

“We’ve learned a lot because of the pandemic and hopefully in the coming weeks and months, we can improve our process for a better response,” she said in Filipino.