Whipps: New low-cost PCR test could be key in staying Covid-free
Now that the much-talked-about Palau-Taiwan travel bubble debuted over a week ago, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said the next hurdle is making the trip financially viable.
“Now our challenge is how do we convince travelers to come to visit Palau for three days and it costs $3,000 because of all of these requirements that we have,” Whipps said on Friday. “The next step is how do we make it more efficient. How do we entice more visitors to Palau to get our economy back.”
One cost-effective answer could come in the form of rapid, low-cost polymerase chain reaction(PCR) tests for Covid-19. The president said the current travel bubble program in place with Taiwan costs $400 a passenger for just testing.
Whipps highlighted one test by iCare Dx, a company developed by Foxconn founder Terry Guo. Whipps said the test will soon be up for U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency use authority approval.
“They came up with a product that basically for less than a couple hundred dollars is a testing device. This is a PCR testing device,” Whipps said, gesturing toward the device on his desk.
Whipps was a featured panelist at the 2021 University of Guam Virtual Conference on Island Sustainability.
The iCare Dx test uses saliva in a cartridge that is placed into a device that will return a result in two hours, Whipps said.
The iCare website has few details about the product but a video tutorial shows a user putting saliva and possibly another solution into the cartridge, then putting that in a box-shaped device which displays a test result after some time.
One component of the device costs $10, Whipps said.
“So you now brought a PCR test down to $10. Totally affordable,” he said. “The concept is everybody gets one of these machines, you can test at your hotel room, you can test at the airport. It just makes it easier to travel and the cost comes down. Like I said, with our current regime with Taiwan it costs $400 a passenger, just for testing.”
Whipps added that iCare plans to have the tests available in about six weeks.
“They said they can scale this up and produce millions of machines pretty quickly if the world needs them,” Whipps said. “It would be able to help especially us that want to stay Covid-free.”
Guo is on Forbes’ The Richest in 2021 list. Whipps had breakfast with Guo last month when Whipps was in Taiwan, according to a March 30 Facebook post from Guo. Forbes estimated Guo’s net worth to be $7 billion.
Guo wished success for the travel bubble program between Palau and Taiwan in his Facebook post about his meeting with Whipps.
The travel program between Palau and Taiwan, which Palau called a world-first quarantine-free sterile corridor, opened on April 1.
Taiwan, which has largely kept the virus under control, worked with Palau on the joint effort for many months prior, according to Whipps.
Palau’ border has been closed since March 2020 to keep the 18,000 residents safe from Covid-19. The country is dependent on tourism so while they were shielded from the lethal impacts of the virus, the economic fallout was unavoidable.
Forty-two percent of payroll was affected because of the tourism downturn, Whipps said. While the country was fortunate to have zero Covid-19 cases, Palau also logged zero tourists for a whole year before the travel bubble program launched. It negatively impacted businesses and people, he said.
“Palau, we still want to be Covid-free,” Whipps said on Friday. It’s a statement almost no other world leader could utter.
Data showed that Palau’s risk of getting a COVID-19 case from Taiwan was 1 in 4 million, Whipps said.
Whipps lauded the efforts of Palau and Taiwan’s health departments. He thanked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for their help to train Palau health care workers to treat COVID-19 patients. He also thanked the U.S. government for including the freely associated states in Operation Warp Speed. The country received its first doses of vaccines in January, which signaled a ray of hope.
“It was important that began the process of people building confidence and being able to accept that, yes, maybe we can take a little bit of risk,” Whipps said.