Rapid antigen testing will be rolled out wider to Auckland hospitals within days, after a review of the testing strategy said the government was slow to introduce it and saliva tests.
The fast-result tests will also be used in the government's at-home isolation trials for returning travellers in Auckland and Christchurch, and the government will work with the private sector to allow their use by corporations for surveillance testing.
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Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay, Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall and Professor David Murdoch from the University of Otago have been covering rapid antigen, saliva, and surveillance testing at today's media briefing.
The government had its Covid-19 testing reviewed by the Ministry of Health's Covid-19 Testing Technical Advisory Group, led by Prof Murdoch, which conducted interviews in late September, and has released the report today.
The review said while the performance of the laboratory sector had been very good, Covid-19 testing needed to be more adaptable and the introduction of saliva and rapid antigen testing had been relatively slow.
The group urged the government to set up a dedicated approach for innovation and implementation of new testing technology and strategy to improve their uptake.
"Common themes from the review included the need for better future planning; reduction in silos; a scenario-based testing strategy to help laboratories with planning; a clearer process for accreditation and adoption of new tests; and the urgent need for connection with innovators in the community in order to co-design and implement the testing strategy."
It also called for:
- Additional testing leadership roles
- Testing modelling based on various scenarios
- An assessment of laboratory resilience
- A focus on retaining lab staff
- Facilitation of piloting new testing approaches
- Ongoing external reviews of overseas testing systems
- Public communications strategy
- More technological solutions like e-swab orders, apps and databases for testing and reporting processes
Murdoch said New Zealand could have been better prepared.
"As a country we were too slow to adopt saliva testing, and too slow to prepare for rapid antigen testing, so we do need to up our game here."
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began there had been rapid technological developments on testing, he said, and great advancements were hoped for in the sector, including for other diseases.
PCR would continue to be the main testing method, and New Zealand had made good use of it, he said.
"There's certainly been times, many times during the pandemic, that the lab services have been absolutely stretched, but also I should say we've done remarkably well with our PCR testing."
"Testing of course underpins virtually every aspect of the response, but New Zealanders can be well assured that we have excellent testing laboratory services in this country."
However, New Zealand needed to be faster and more agile in assessing and implementing new approaches and more options needed to be looked at.
"Ultimately we need to have a robust system to ensure that we have the right tests in the right place for the right people, and that our laboratories are best prepared."
Prof Murdoch said the testing technical advisory group was formed only a month ago, and focused on the rapid review of processes and how new tests and innovations are assessed and provided.
"The main purpose of our review was to ensure that Covid-19 testing was agile and fit for New Zealand's Covid-19 response."
Cabinet ministers have considered the report, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said would form the basis of a new, rigourous testing regime central to the strategy for controlling the virus, since Monday.
Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall said rapid antigen testing, which had already been introduced at Middlemore Hospital, would be rolled out within days to "high-risk" Auckland City and North Shore hospitals, and would be used in the pilot self-isolation scheme.
She said the government was also "working closely with the private sector on a plan to bring rapid antigen tests into the country so businesses can use it in a way that will work best in New Zealand's Covid-19 environment", and she planned to meet with business leaders including Rob Fyfe and Adrian Littlewood tomorrow.
She said testing, tracing and isolation systems had worked well for New Zealand to date, but it was the increasingly vaccinated population that was providing more options.
"To date, we have relied heavily on high-sensitivity PCR tests because until most New Zealanders are protected with vaccinations, the cost of missing a case has been too high."
"While this technology provides a result quickly, rapid antigen testing tends to be less sensitive at detecting cases - especially in asymptomatic people, or those who are either very early in or towards the end of their infectious period," she said.
"That's why we must ensure a robust system is in place so we don't miss cases. Any people who test positive will be verified with further testing, and managed appropriately - including being linked with healthcare."
Dr Verrall said now was a good opportunity to make these changes. Asked about timeframes for the pilot of rapid antigen tests being used by businesses, she referred only to the "kick-off" meeting tomorrow.
She said the government wanted to work with non-clinical businesses and services, and was designing the pilot in conjunction with industry.