Why is large-scale COVID-19 testing capacity so important?
Early and efficient detection of the virus in the population allows governments to find infection clusters and implement measures to stop further spread. It is when the virus spreads undetected – as has been the case in some countries – that it is able to infect large numbers of people.
Rapid tracking and tracing of the virus can only be achieved with widely distributed testing capacity. Such widescale testing programs, that typically involve asymptomatic people, provide vital reassurance to government, businesses and, most importantly, the general public that it is safe to return to our daily lives and that future outbreaks can be contained.
Population-based testing is a key pillar of the Commonwealth Government’s Roadmap to a COVIDSafe Australia.
How did Minderoo Foundation become involved in bringing COVID-19 testing kits to Australia?
In March 2020, the Australian government sought urgent assistance in acquiring equipment to rapidly expand Australia’s COVID-19 testing capacity. At the time there was significant uncertainty in Australia’s ability to test its broader population as the virus spread through the community.
Minderoo Foundation was willing and able to assist with this critically important mission and secured the laboratory equipment and reagent supply on behalf of the government, to deliver 10 million additional tests. At the request of the government, this capacity has now been deployed to private pathology labs around Australia.
As a charitable foundation which is here to support Australians, we felt compelled to help in any way we could best be of service.
There has been concerns around the ineffectiveness of antibody testing. Is this the testing method employed by these kits?
No. The COVID-19 testing equipment sourced by Minderoo Foundation on behalf of the Australian government uses a process called qPCR, or quantitative polymerase chain reaction. This approach looks for the presence of the virus itself, and thus actively infected individuals, and is distinct from antibody testing, which looks for evidence of a person’s immune response to the virus. Once a sample is collected and processed by qPCR, a result can usually be available within a few hours.
The qPCR testing method, which confirms the presence of the virus in the body rather than antibodies, is the international standard for detection of active COVID-19 infection.
Are the tests safe and effective?
The equipment sourced by Minderoo Foundation on behalf of the Australian government has been reviewed and approved for use by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and by national security agencies. It is used around the world.
Are the testing kits being used or have they been stockpiled?
The testing equipment has been deployed and is currently in use nationwide through Healius and Sonic Healthcare. These companies carry out the pathology testing services that most Australians come into contact with when they are requested by their GP to get a flu test or a blood test.
In total there are 11 laboratories run by Healius and Sonic around Australia that have the Minderoo Foundation sourced equipment installed. There is at least one laboratory site in every Australian state. At full capacity, these labs can process more than 50,000 samples per day.
The significant qPCR testing capacity made available with the assistance of Minderoo Foundation allows for widescale asymptomatic testing, meaning people who are not showing any symptoms can be monitored for the virus. This provides the safeguards and confidence required to reopen the economy, recommence day-to-day living and rapidly deal with any future spikes in infection rates, should they occur.
Did Minderoo Foundation profit by acquiring and providing the tests?
No. Minderoo Foundation was asked by the Australian government to assist during a pandemic. Minderoo Foundation sourced and paid for the testing equipment at its own risk. As this was an operation carried out on behalf of the Commonwealth, the government is reimbursing Minderoo Foundation at cost price for the expenses incurred but not for Minderoo Foundation’s considerable personnel costs.
What are the test kits?
The qPCR test kits involve precisely calibrated equipment operated in custom-built laboratories and meet the internationally recognised standards for COVID-19 detection.
Made by BGI Labs, a global leader in medical equipment manufacturing that is providing supplies to at least 80 countries in their pandemic response, the kits examine samples taken from patients – usually from a throat or nasal swab – and detect the presence of ribonucleic acid (RNA) from the SARS-Cov-2 virus which causes the COVID-19 illness.
As the test kits have been provided by BGI labs, does this mean test results and associated data will be available to them?
No. All results remain in Australia and no patient data is shared with the manufacturer. The test detects the viral RNA not the genetic information of the patient.