NZ’s Testing Regime Unprepared for Omicron According to Expert

Terrified at how unprepared the Government is for Omicron, a Covid-19 saliva testing expert from Yale University has said New Zealand urgently needs to ramp up saliva testing of border workers before it is too late.

Yale University’s Anne Wyllie said New Zealand authorities need to test border workers daily and pay attention to new research showing saliva testing is better at detecting Omicron.

“I’m terrified it’s going to be too little too late. New Zealand has had almost two years to straighten out its testing system, to get things in place.”

Wyllie, a Kiwi expat, has been dubbed “the spit queen” for her important research on saliva testing, and is part of a group advising United States President Joe Biden on Covid-19 testing.

A study from the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, finds nasal swabs, which performed well with the Delta variant, were less effective at detecting Omicron. It concludes nasal samples may be “suboptimal” for detecting the new variant.

According to Wyllie, New Zealand needs to be aiming to process 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day, well above the peak of nearly 50,000 tests recorded on one day in August last year.

Opposition parties National, ACT and Te Pāti Māori have similar concerns around the number of times MIQ workers are being tested, along with poor turnaround times at labs, and slow moves to provide a greater variety of Covid-19 tests to the general population.

Last year, during the Delta outbreak, iwi in Taranaki largely gave up on the public Covid-19 testing system, instead training up their own volunteers to administer saliva tests from Rako Science.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said the availability of saliva testing made a real difference to how willing people were to be tested. She credits saliva testing with helping contain an outbreak in Taranaki over the summer period, while much of the public system was closed.

An outbreak at Eltham school on December 15 was quickly contained after 11 students were shown to be Covid-19 positive within a day of saliva testing being rolled out at the school by volunteers from Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāruahine.

Saliva PCR testing was recommended by the Simpson Roche report in 2020, and the Ministry of Health later procured a border worker contract with the ambition of creating a system that could process up to 20,000 saliva tests a week.

The saliva testing system that came out of the other side of that procurement process took months longer than initially promised to set up, and fell short, in terms of the number of tests conducted.

The auditor-general eventually lashed the ministry for the way it conducted its procurement process, including for the conflicts of interest involved.

As the saliva testing debate has dragged on the Ministry of Health and other bodies, like the NZ Microbiology Network, who expressed accuracy concerns, have been forced to reverse those positions in light of scientific evidence.

Wyllie noted that there is no time to lose in shoring up our systems. She is seeing the havoc of Omicron firsthand, as Yale’s SalivaDirect Covid-19 test is being rolled out in US schools.

“There have never been such high case counts in schools around students, staff. We did a pop-up community testing site the other day ... 99 [people] showed up, 36 tested positive.”