As New Zealand moves on from a COVID-19 elimination strategy, our laboratories are gearing up for some of the largest testing volumes ever needed in New Zealand’s history. To meet this challenge, the Asia Pacific Healthcare Group (APHG) are making significant investments to ensure we can test at the levels required to keep playing this critical role in the national COVID-19 response.

To date, APHG laboratories have performed over 1.5 million COVID-19 PCR tests. This is on top of the tens of millions of tests for non-COVID health issues. Our current record day saw us receive 25,000 test requests at the peak of Auckland’s recent level 4 lockdown. To put that into context, when COVID first hit, the whole country’s testing peak was around 8,000 tests.

The ability to achieve testing on this scale doesn’t happen overnight – nor does it happen with one testing platform, or one laboratory.

Delivering these types of numbers requires a skilled and experienced medical and scientific workforce; millions of dollars’ worth of automated equipment; tried and tested IT systems for secure data flow; and national transport networks that can shift samples with speed and consistency.

The APHG laboratories have been building these systems, capability, and scale for over half a century and our network is now integrated in a way that if one laboratory were to be overrun in one part of the country, others in our own network could step in faster than you can say ‘nasopharyngeal’.

However, based on what we are seeing overseas, New Zealand will need to deploy significant ongoing testing capacity for years to come. Even in highly vaccinated populations like Israel and Denmark there are still high infection rates – and in the UK they’re currently seeing over 40,000 new cases a day.

In response to what we’re seeing globally, we are gearing up. Our recent investments paint a picture of how we’re doing just that.

Our Wellington and Christchurch laboratories have both switched on a new state-of-the-art automated molecular testing platform. It ramps up (and nearly doubles) our ability at each of these sites to support the national response. In Wellington alone, for example, this could expand testing from around 5,000 COVID-19 tests a day to 10,000. We’ve fast tracked plans to roll out another five such analysers, two more in Auckland and one each in Dunedin, Nelson and New Plymouth all due to be in place by the end of the year.

We’ve also deployed rapid testing equipment into emergency departments to give hospitals the capability for urgent COVID-19 testing. These impressive pieces of technology utilise the same PCR method as the big analysers in the laboratories, but they’re far more compact and work up to four times as fast. They’re not intended for large volumes of tests, but importantly EDs can run a COVID-19 test on a symptomatic patient and know within 25 minutes that they shouldn’t be sharing the same air with other patients.

This equipment, and the work to get them in the country and onsite, amounts to millions of dollars of investment, and they’re absolutely critical for New Zealand right now and more so going forward. We will need to diagnose high volumes of COVID cases, and our team of microbiologists agree that nasopharyngeal remains the gold standard to do this, with saliva being a vital surveillance testing tool, especially if the Government expands surveillance testing requirements.

While the next 12-24 months will be challenging and uncertain, kiwis can have confidence that the laboratory sector is already gearing up for a significant increase in testing as we regain some of our freedoms and the doors to the border begin opening.

APHG testing volumes

As of 4 November – APHG laboratories have completed:

  • 1,538,441 COVID-19 PCR tests
  • 93,630 Saliva Tests