1 May 2020

Touchdown for local Covid-19 test carts in South Pacific

5:55 am on 1 May 2020

By Lisa Williams

The ability to do in country testing for Covid-19 is a step closer, with the first consignment of test cartridges and gear arriving in Fiji, according to the World Health Organisation, WHO.

GeneXpert testing

GeneXpert testing Photo: Cepheid

Suva-based WHO representative Angela Merianos said Pacific nations were among the first group of countries receiving specially developed cartridges from US manufacturer Cepheid, for local testing of Covid-19.

South Pacific nations using New Zealand or Australia to run their testing should be getting cartridges. Some, like Tokelau where there was no testing facility, would also receive the GeneXpert system.

MFAT New Zealand, DFAT Australia, and the Pacific Community joined forces with WHO and UNICEF to pool $US150,000 covering up to five batches from Cepheid, said Dr Merianos.

The fund would cover cartridges, but also machines needed to run the carts for countries, like Tokelau, which never had them in the first instance.

Cepheid had to develop different cartridges for Covid-19 testing on the system, with WHO giving priority to the Pacific.

Dr Merianos said some North Pacific nations had already received the cartridges and they were ideal for the Pacific as the GeneXpert system they operated was a widely used TB diagnostic tool.

The much anticipated batch for distribution to the South Pacific nations was scheduled to land in Nadi yesterday, almost a month after Pacific health officials began asking when they were going to arrive.

Those frustrations for island nations feeling they were at the far end of the WHO global queue, were being noted in regular sessions of the new Incident Management team sessions, where WHO had a leading role.

"It's a work in progress, and every effort at the highest level, has been working together to make sure the Pacific islands and other small islands states - those countries that don't have internal capacities for testing, are prioritised as far as possible," Dr Merianos said.

"There is a global shortage, and a global demand for equipment and supplies, including these GeneXpert cartridges. They're a new development," said Dr Merianos of the delays.

She said redeveloping the systems from their focus on diagnosing TB and some sexually transmitted infections, to testing for Covid-19, had meant Cepheid was still scaling up for demand, and "WHO has spoken to the manufacturer, on many occasions prioritising the Pacific."

There was still a long way towards having the capacity for testing large populations. Each of the batches received in Fiji would only have 2000 cartridges to share among island neighbours.

"It's not ideal," says Dr Merianos, "but we have to take it in the context of the global emergency, and global demand and supply."

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Photo: AFP