Regular saliva testing for staff at New Zealand’s managed isolation and quarantine facilities could be underway in weeks, which aims to strengthen the country’s border against Covid-19.
Asia Pacific Health Group (APHG) was awarded a Ministry of Health contract in May to provide virus surveillance testing through saliva samples from staff at New Zealand’s MIQ sites.
Testing at the border has been a contentious issue, punctuated by revelations in April that an infected Grand Millennium security guard wasn’t tested for six months, even though he was meant to be tested fortnightly.
As at June 28, 161 MIQ workers were overdue for a test.
It was estimated between 6000 and 20,000 saliva tests would be done per week.
Early indications were MIQ workers would submit a sample every second day when the programme was rolled out in the coming weeks, following a prototype in Christchurch last week.
Voluntary saliva testing had been offered at MIQ facilities since January but uptake had been poor.
The 12-month contract was worth up to 60 million but was dependent on testing volumes. That meant tests could cost between $58 to $192 each.
Labtests, which is one of five APHG facilities primed to process the saliva tests, gave the Herald exclusive access to its Auckland laboratory, which had processed 520,000 Covid tests since the pandemic began.
Labtests general manager Chris Davey said there were no concerns about the efficacy of the test and was confident it was the best option.
“We don’t believe that there are better tests out there.”
As explained by Labtests microbiology and molecular head of department Susan Smith and molecular section head Blair Shilton, the process will start by MIQ workers signing into an APHG phone app.
This requires a person’s National Health Index (NHI) number and date of birth, but only for the first sign-in.
Through the app, the worker would scan the bar code on the tube, which their “sample” is going in, deposit the sample and scan the bar code again.
The worker will then scan a QR code at a collection booth before dropping off their sample.
Once at the lab, the sample is heated and further liquified in a water bath to make it easier to process. Then any viral RNA – evidence of the virus being present – is extracted.
Reagents, substances that cause chemical reactions, are added to bind to any viral genetic material before it is amplified. Inferences can be made about how infectious a person is by how quickly the genetic material amplifies.
Smith said a positive test result could be determined within three to six hours, depending on the urgency and quantity of samples.
APHG is owned by NZ Healthcare Investments Ltd, which was partially owned by the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, which holds a 48 per cent stake.
The Ministry of Health denied any suggestion of a conflict of interest in awarding the testing contract to a company partially owned by another Government entity.
“The successful tenderer was appointed after a comprehensive process, which followed Government procurement processes and included independent evaluation of proposals by panel members from across the testing sector,” a spokesperson said.
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