A nationwide collaboration to deliver consistently high levels of diagnostic pathology testing for COVID-19 has been pivotal in minimising the impact of COVID-19 in New Zealand. The Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA) advises that this high level of quality testing, combined with the community adhering to the Government's guidelines, is essential for managing the outbreak.
Associate Professor James Ussher, a Fellow of the RCPA, explains that New Zealand has provided a consistently high level of diagnostic testing for COVID-19, with over 86,300 Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests completed so far. He believes that the country’s response of introducing COVID-19 testing quickly into laboratories and providing reliable, accurate results within short timeframes has been invaluable.
“Testing is absolutely critical in managing an infectious outbreak. This is particularly important when dealing with SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, as it can present the same as many other respiratory illnesses. What we have discovered through our local experience is that many of the cases are extremely mild, meaning that testing is required to identify cases and conduct subsequent contact tracing.
“Since the start of the outbreak, pathology laboratories have worked hard with the Ministry of Health to ensure that there is an ongoing high level of quality testing available. Laboratories across New Zealand have worked together, along with the universities which have assisted with testing, to ensure that there are enough resources and workarounds in place to keep testing; which has been a real success.”
Dr Gary McAuliffe is Medical Director of Labtests in Auckland and Northland Pathology Laboratory and is also a Fellow of the RCPA. He estimates that around 2,000 tests are currently being performed in his region alone each day. He explains that there has been a large collaborative effort across New Zealand to provide high volumes of testing.
“Often, we have the luxury of introducing a test over several weeks; we did it in a matter of days. We had to do this with information from the very first cases, including the genetic sequence of the virus. This all happened very fast; a test was developed, from scratch and introduced into laboratories very quickly. Following this, the focus was trying to rapidly set up as many laboratories as we could nationally, using tests appropriate for their particular skills and resources, with a clear focus on quality. The RCPA Quality Assurance Program (QAP) has also developed a QAP for COVID-19 testing which has been very useful.
“What has been incredible is how we have been working together as a network, nationally, in a way that we have not done before. To keep up with demand, we have collaborated with the universities, plus a number of agricultural laboratories which would normally use PCR tests to test livestock for infectious disease. These institutions have assisted in the response by working with human diagnostic laboratories to provide resources, facilities, and staff to meet the high volume of testing required for COVID-19. We have also been able to overcome logistical challenges by working with the New Zealand Government and the defence force to solve problems which would normally have been insurmountable."
New Zealand has been on lockdown since 25 March 2020, with stringent regulations directing residents to stay in their homes around the clock unless shopping for essentials such as food or medicine, or for exercise within their neighbourhood. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently announced that the country will start to relax its restrictions next week.
“The ability to go on from here and come out of lockdown is really quite dependent on our ability to test large volumes. So far, we seem to have managed it correctly with our ability to stand up to testing and we still have the flexibility to increase even further and to support this extremely important health intervention,” said Dr McAuliffe.
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