The nature of the virus that causes COVID-19 means it can spread undetected in the community before someone falls ill and has a confirmed diagnosis through a test. Unfortunately, by that point, many other contacts of the patient could have been transmitting the virus to others.
In March 2020, health experts advising the Commonwealth government stressed the importance of testing the general population. This was to be key if Australia were to beat and eventually emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
To their credit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt acted decisively and prioritised bringing extra testing capacity to Australian shores, thereby building a war chest to fight the virus and any future wave.
As part of the world-wide search, the Commonwealth government asked Minderoo Foundation to assist in finding and securing testing equipment. A request the Minderoo Foundation delivered on in a remarkably short space of time.
In the weeks after the virus was first detected in Australia, health authorities imposed strict testing criteria because testing capacity was severely curtailed. Social distancing restrictions and other measures helped contain the spread, but as the economy begins to re-open, a different approach is required.
Professor Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer for the Australian government, has said that what concerns him most is the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
This is where widespread testing of people, regardless of their symptoms, is essential.
While initial testing was focused on finding positive cases, confidence that people, workforces and communities are free from the virus will be increasingly important. For example, companies resuming operations face significant risks, including complete shutdowns, if it emerges that one or more of their staff is carrying the virus.
Australia’s relative success in containing the spread of the virus has important implications for the approach to ongoing monitoring. Testing for immunity to COVID-19 through antibody testing – which has been widely promoted as a potential solution – will have limited application because only a tiny percentage of the community has been exposed to the virus as a result of early containment action by authorities.
Testing for the presence of the virus in the body through nasal and throat swabs is the most effective way to identify the presence of the actual virus. This is the approach used in the equipment sourced for Australia by Minderoo Foundation.
Using a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), samples are screened for known identifiers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This is the international standard for COVID-19 detection and has a high degree of accuracy, especially in comparison to some of the current antibody testing approaches.
Results are usually available from this process in a matter of hours, helping to speed up diagnosis confirmation and allow rapid decisions to be made on isolating the patient and any other people who may have been exposed.
Population-based testing is a key pillar of the health response in the Commonwealth government’s Roadmap to a COVIDSafe Australia. Minderoo Foundation is proud to have played its part in delivering the widespread testing capability that will provide the necessary confidence to re-start Australia’s economy and get people back to work.