25 Jan 2022

Covid-19 testing capacity increased with rapid antigen and robots

5:08 pm on 25 January 2022

New Zealand's PCR capacity has increased to 58,000 per day, in part thanks to robotics from a local engineering firm, and accessibility of rapid antigen tests (RATs) is being improved.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield have been speaking after a Cabinet meeting.

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With Omicron likely to spread widely in the community, calls have been mounting to increase the use of rapid antigen tests - which are slightly less reliable but can identify a Covid-19 case within 15 minutes.

Ardern says to date, 29 cases associated with the Omicron cluster have been identified. All are in isolation, but the government is yet to establish firm links to a known border case.

She says with Omicron the source of the outbreak may never be known.

Some testing sites in Wellington and Auckland are switching to drive-through to increase capacity.


Ardern asks everyone who is eligible to get their booster as soon as possible. She says over 73 percent of eligible people over 65 have now been boosted, and every DHB is on track to complete booster programmes in aged care facilities within the next week.

Bloomfield says he has asked for advice about the four-month interval between second dose and booster doses, but says New Zealand is already one of the places with one of the shorter intervals.

He says he is confident there is a set of plans well underway to help lift vaccination rates for all children, and particularly to help vaccinate tamariki Māori.

Bloomfield says the ministry would take expert advice on whether there is a benefit of moving from a four-month interval to three months.

He has also asked for advice on booster shots for 12 to 17-year-olds. He says Pfizer has not applied for such a use in other countries around the world.

And he has asked for advice on the six-month gap for five to 12-year-olds between first and second dose.


Ardern says she can confirm today the government intends to use a 'test to return to work' approach. Workers will be able to use proof of a negative rapid antigen test to return to the workplace during their required period of isolation. This will minimise the impact on critical infrastructure, she says.

"For now, though, PCR tests are best."

Ardern says New Zealand currently has 4.6 million rapid antigen tests in the country, and has confirmed delivery of an additional 14.6 million over the next five weeks. The government is also awaiting the delivery schedule for a further 22 million further tests over the same period.

Bloomfield says it is a very competitive global market. He says what's being waited on is confirmation of delivery and supply.

"We've certainly been ordering and we continue to order from that increasing range of suppliers of those newly approved tests."

Ardern says there are nine types of rapid antigen tests currently available for use, with another 19 types under a full technical assessment.

She says the effectiveness of RATs can range from 30 percent to 80 percent accuracy.

Asked when people could pick up rapid antigen tests from the supermarket and test themselves at home, Ardern says the government wants to make sure the tests are not being used for no reason, especially given the tests have a tendency to produce false positives.

The government will provide critical workforces with RATs and will support businesses to support their workforces with access to the tests also, Ardern says.

Bloomfield says the government has been ordering RATs for months, and they have been used by more than 20 businesses which are using them for ongoing surveillance, and in health settings.

"And we certainly upped our orders in the last few months of the year ... the issue is not so much the orders it's getting confirmation of delivery."

Ardern notes the RAT tests also do not always have long shelf life.

Ardern says the 'test to return to work' regime will be used for essential workforces, but government will provide more detail on that tomorrow.

Bloomfield says a prerequisite would be that people are asymptomatic - if they are symptomatic they would need to isolate.

A de-capping robot, which has mechanical arms that unscrew sample tube caps ready for processing and then replaces with a new cap when processing is completed. It is designed to boost workflow and reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries for Covid-19 testing labs.

A de-capping robot, which has mechanical arms that unscrew sample tube caps ready for processing and then replaces with a new cap when processing is completed. It is designed to boost workflow and reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries for Covid-19 testing labs. Photo: Supplied / NZ Government / Bob Ashford

In a statement, Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall said the government had doubled the varieties of RATs for import and supply in New Zealand.

Registered New Zealand businesses would also be able to import, supply, distribute or sell the approved test without having to use an authorised importer, she said, and the process for approving new RAT types was made easier.

She said significant progress was being made on New Zealand's testing systems after a review of testing by the technical advisory group led by Professor David Murdoch in October.

New Zealand's capacity for PCR lab testing had increased from 39,000 tests per day to 58,000 per day, and up to 77,600 per day with surge capacity for up to seven days, she said.

"We have continued to adapt our public health response to safeguard the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders throughout this pandemic," Dr Verrall said.

"Our labs have already processed 5,906,843 tests to date and our highest testing day so far was 24 August 2021 where 49,736 tests were completed."

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Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

She said a rapid rise in case numbers due to Omicron would require a shift away from testing everyone, to targeting testing at those most at risk or needed for critical infrastructure.

This was in part due to automation of some testing tasks, including with a de-capping robot that could remove and replace the caps from sample tubes.

The robots were designed in partnership between Canterbury DHB's Medical Physics and Bioengineering team and local engineering company Design Energy.

Border update

Ardern says New Zealand's borders have served it well.

When it comes to future changes, the plan to allow individuals to isolate at home as announced towards the end of last year has not changed.

She says there will still be a self-isolation requirement however, to reduce the number of cases being seeded into the community.

Ardern says the early phases are scheduled for late February, and the plan has not yet changed. Cabinet has made no decisions to make changes yet on that.

Today the Ministry of Health reported 25 new cases of Covid-19 in the community, including 10 confirmed new Omicron cases.

Earlier Education and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced the government is ordering 5000 portable air cleaners, to ensure schools are ventilated enough to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

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