Covid mass testing lab won’t be ready when country ‘opens for business’

Saturday 10 April 2021 | Written by Caleb Fotheringham | Published in Features, Health, In Depth, National

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Covid mass testing lab won’t be ready when country ‘opens for business’
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 back.

“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 Australia.

After the final pieces of equipment arrive, two more weeks of online training will take place before the practical training begins.

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 individually”.

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 doubles.

“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.”