Labtests’ Head of Microbiology Susan Smith runs a team at the heart of our pandemic testing response.

Starting with only four core members and a Panther analyser, the team has grown to 70+, and as of last week, have carried out over 1 million COVID-19 tests. Impressive mahi considering they had never had to deal with viral PCR testing prior to 2019.

We talked to Susan about the challenges involved in the COVID-19 testing efforts, the constant drive and support within the team, and how they’re preparing for a busy summer of traffic lights and travel.

 

What was the process of setting up the COVID-19 testing efforts, and what challenges did you face? 

When COVID-19 became the talk of the world, people weren’t sure what was going to happen. But we knew we had to set up testing rapidly. Supply was our first big concern – New Zealand’s on the other side of the world from most manufacturing plants, and it’s hard to get stuff to us at the best of times. So when it came to getting the supplies for COVID testing, there were several months of waiting for deliveries to arrive as we started testing. Ultimately the ministry had to help get them into the country – I think they even ended up getting the Air Force involved.

A key part of the job was making sure we had redundancy, which means that if one of our instruments breaks down, or needs maintenance, we can carry on testing. We also needed multiple options for testing, because there might be one particular component that we can’t get hold of due to supply issues. And if you’re missing one piece of the puzzle, the whole thing can’t be done.

How has your team handled the intensity of the past couple of years? 

They continue to amaze me every day. They love the challenge, and always want to do and achieve more. They go above and beyond to get results out quickly for people who are desperate to travel out of the country – we’ve heard stories of people trying to get to a dying family member’s bedside, or trying to get to a funeral. And they always do everything they can to help.

Sometimes it seems there’s no escape from COVID – they’re working on it, it’s on the news, and everyone’s talking about it. It can be hard to wind down after work when the days are so fast-paced. But the way they’ve been able to keep their spirits high is really incredible, and they’ve worked so well as a team to support and look after one another. In the midst of this, they were even sweet enough to throw me a birthday party.

What does the next few months look like for Labtests, given the expected rise in demand for COVID tests? 

The blessing of moving into a phase where there’s a commitment to a high volume of testing is that we have more resources. For a long time no one really knew how long COVID was going to be around for, but now it’s obviously here to stay, which means we’re able to invest more. So we’ve got a new molecular lab being renovated, we’ve got more instruments arriving, and we’re constantly recruiting. It’s been a bit of a mad period of planning and preparation, but hopefully we’ll get to a stage where the whole process is easier and more automated. There’s also a lot of initiative being shown as to how to prioritise testing – what needs to happen and when. It won’t be easy, and there’s always a level of uncertainty, but at least we’ve got more commitment now.