Let us test: Saliva testing provider's plea to Ministry of Health

Author
Adam Pearse, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 27 Aug 2021, 7:35PM
(Photo / Michael Craig)
(Photo / Michael Craig)

Let us test: Saliva testing provider's plea to Ministry of Health

Author
Adam Pearse, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 27 Aug 2021, 7:35PM

Saliva testing provider Rako Science believes long queues at Covid-19 testing centres and test result notification delays could have been avoided if the Government had engaged its services sooner.

And now the New Zealand-owned company's director is sending a message to the Ministry of Health, asking to resume conversations about how saliva testing can be made available to the public.

It comes as Rako Science begins work with its first Māori healthcare and social services provider, Te Whānau o Waipareira, to establish saliva testing for its staff and eventually its community.

The New Zealand Herald is awaiting a response from the Ministry of Health.

Speaking to media in Auckland today, Rako Science chief science officer Dr ​Stephen Grice believed many of the testing strains felt during the current outbreak would have been reduced, had saliva testing been operational.

"If our capacity was utilised, the wait times in the queues would decrease, the turnaround time would decrease all at the same time without compromising scientific standards and people potentially are more likely to come forward because it's less invasive," he said.

The saliva is transferred via a teaspoon into a small tube. Photo / Michael Craig

The saliva is transferred via a teaspoon into a small tube. Photo / Michael Craig

Due to excess demand, some people in Auckland waited more than 11 hours for a nasopharyngeal swab test last week. In some instances, results were not returned for up to five days.

Grice claims Rako Science and its partners have the ability to process 10,000 saliva tests per day with an average turnaround time of 193 minutes - slightly more than three hours.

When a NZ Herald staffer was tested at midday on Friday, a negative result was received within a little over four hours.

Rako Science's saliva test, which is said to be just as effective at detecting Covid-19 as a swab test, is believed to be the only test in the country which is diagnostically validated, meaning it was tested using real-world samples of Covid-19.

The test involves the subject drooling into a teaspoon before depositing the sample into a small tube. Subjects could not eat, chew gum, vape or brush their teeth an hour beforehand to ensure the sample wasn't compromised.

The Kiwi company has been contracted to provide such testing for multiple groups and organisations, including staff at Auckland Airport, Air New Zealand, Fisher and Paykel, and for New Zealand's Olympians and Para Olympians.

"We believe the test has got the science backing and logistics behind it and all things that are required while maintaining security and accuracy," Grice said.

Te Whānau o Waipareira staffer Lance Norman demonstrates how to do a saliva test. Photo / Michael Craig

Te Whānau o Waipareira staffer Lance Norman demonstrates how to do a saliva test. Photo / Michael Craig

He confirmed saliva testing was not a replacement of the swab test, but was more suitable for workforces such as some border staff who were tested as regularly as every three days.

Grice also said the quicker turnaround time was more effective in preventing spread of the Delta variant, which was renowned for its rapid transmission.

However, Rako Science has received little attention from the Ministry of Health - despite the company attempting to engage the ministry for months.

Grice denied the hold up was caused by Rako Science but would not elaborate, saying "that's for others to answer".

IGENZ, a privately owned medical testing laboratory, partners Rako Science in its saliva testing rollout.

Laboratory director Dr Amanda Dixon-McIver said the ministry had been aware of their capacity to rollout out saliva testing since early this year.

She encouraged Government officials bring saliva testing onboard quickly to relieve the stress being felt by the public system.

"There is an untapped resource here where we have the capacity to do 10,000 [tests] a day," she said.

"Let us take the pressure off the existing public health system and let us do the testing."

Rako Science had almost completed a saliva testing pilot with Te Whānau o Waipareira, which aimed to take saliva samples from 250 staff members.

The two parties were currently in discussion about how it might be rolled out to the public.

John Tamihere. Photo / File

John Tamihere. Photo / File

Te Whānau o Waipareira chief executive John Tamihere said it "beggars belief" why saliva testing hadn't been ramped up sooner, name-checking director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield as answerable.

"There's only one question in this country, why isn't it rolling?" he said.

"You've got to start with uncle Ashley and move your way down."

Te Whānau o Waipareira operated one of Auckland's busiest testing centres in the west Auckland suburb of Henderson.

Tamihere claimed some whānau who needed to be tested were not complying because of the invasive nature of the swab test.

He bemoaned what he considered to be "red tape" impeding progress in the rollout of saliva testing which, he hoped, would be an option for the public in the near future.