Te Marae Ora laboratory manager, Douglas Tou stands in the yet to be finished PCR lab in front of the biosafety Cabinet. 21040926
Prime Minister Mark Brown's date for a two-way travel bubble on May 1 will come before the country has a rapid Covid-19 testing system.
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
laboratory has been described by the Government as the gold standard for Covid
testing and has been seen as necessary to ease border restrictions.
The PCR laboratory will be ready for
testing in the “first or the second week of May” says Te Marae Ora laboratory
manager, Douglas Tou. This timeline is after Prime Minister Mark Brown’s
two-way travel bubble date on May 1.
As part of the Cook Islands being
ready to open, PM Brown has indicated a “good robust testing regime” was a
requirement for a two-way bubble with New Zealand.
Health Secretary Bob Williams also previously
said that “securing a PCR laboratory in-country will be significant in helping
us lift our testing capability for Covid-19”.
But Tou says testing won’t be ready on
May 1 because practical training will not begin until late April.
“The guy who is doing the training
will be here on the 26th of April. That means the training will happen in the
last week of April as soon as he gets here. It goes on for two weeks, so we are
looking at the first or the second week of May to be ready for the testing.”
The practical training will be done by
a PCR expert from New Zealand.
When asked if he felt pressure with
the looming travel date set by Brown, Tou says “we’re trying our best to get
ready in time.”
Delivery of the equipment for the
laboratory has also been held up as well, and Tou says it’s pushed everything
“It’s not like you go to CITC and get
what you want and it’s there. All this stuff has to come from Australia, from
New Zealand and as far as Singapore.
“We are still waiting for the rest of
the equipment to arrive. Just a few things, the simple things.”
The equipment is arriving on the next
available ship, which is expected this weekend on Liloa II, voyage 55.
Government spokesperson, Jaewynn McKay
says “shipping delays have put back the date the PCR will be operational from.
It has also delayed the date training will start. Unfortunately, this is the
reality of today.”
There are currently three people being
trained to run the PCR lab. The training has started by running online. The
idea is three people will be trained who will then train others in PCR.
The online training is being conducted
by Dr Patrick Reading, who is a top expert in PCR technology based at the
Doherty Institute in the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in
After the final pieces of equipment
arrive, two more weeks of online training will take place before the practical
But the situation doesn’t rule out the
possibility of a travel bubble on May 1, says McKay. “Even with the delayed
operation of the PCR Lab, we have sufficient GeneXpert cartridges to cover an
increase in arrivals for up to 2 months.”
It’s not a position the Leader of the
Opposition, Tina Pupuke Browne, agrees with. “The May 1 date is one that PM
Mark Brown has plucked out of the air as being the time we will be ready to
have a two-way travel bubble.”
“We need to get surge testing in
place, we need a mass isolation facility, we need PCR testing. We need to have
the vaccine rollout now.”
Browne says the tourism industry can
be sure New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern would not allow a travel
bubble until health services are up to standard.
“NZ PM and NZ Health Ministry have
confirmed that there is no set date for the roll-out of the vaccine or even
opening of two-way travel, that’s just our PM Mark Brown repeating his own date
so often that he’s come to believe his own words.”
Lab scientist at the Rarotonga hospital Theresa Tatuava transfers a Covid-19 test into a GeneXpert cartridge. 21040929
The GeneXpert is the current system
used to detect Covid, it’s done by Covid test samples being pulled into a
cartridge. One cartridge can take up to six samples at a time. If a positive
result is found by the GeneXpert each test sample must be revisited
individually to find the positive result.
But the cartridges are expensive and
pulling the tests together takes time.
Lab scientist at the Rarotonga
hospital Theresa Tatuava says “the beauty of PCR is you can do them
With no test pulling required,
laboratory manager Tou says PCR testing can do 80 samples in an eight-hour
shift but with the extra equipment they’ve purchased, this number more than
“With that system in place, we can
increase our test load to about 200 samples per eight-hour shift.
“Then if we have to go into an extra
shift a 16-hour shift, we will be able to do close to 400 samples.”