A leading epidemiologist warns that New Zealand could face some constraints on its testing capacity, Marc Daalder reports

Over the past couple of days, New Zealand has dramatically stepped up its testing regime. On Tuesday, the country tested nearly as many people as it did in the previous 45 days combined.

However, high rates of testing might not be sustainable for too long due to constraints on supply and workforce, at least in the near term, infectious diseases expert David Murdoch told Newsroom. Murdoch is the Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch, the co-leader of the Infection Group and a Senior Associate in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

“Obviously we’ve got tests up and running but you need to have a reliable supply of all of the consumables for the tests and you need to have the workforce to do it, at a time when the workforce, potentially in the future, could be affected by it as well,” Murdoch said.

Many of the ingredients needed to run Covid-19 tests are not manufactured in New Zealand, meaning there’s a risk local labs could run out. On Wednesday, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield told reporters that the country had a stockpile of 30,000 tests – enough to last just 20 days if labs operated at peak capacity.

“The whole world is in the same situation,” Murdoch said. “There is this pressure on supply chains and a lot of the consumables are imported, so you can imagine the situation at the moment is where pretty much every laboratory in the world will be trying to secure their supply chain, making sure that materials are stockpiled. That’s certainly ongoing in New Zealand.”

“It’s front of mind. It’s a concern to make sure it’s there and they’re working very hard on doing that.”

Staff burnout is also a factor that labs need to weigh. Enough of the testing process is automated that the real cap on testing numbers per day is set by staff numbers and shift numbers. 

“At the moment, they’re coping with the numbers. It’s certainly not at the limit at all,” Murdoch said. “There are automated components of the testing, but it’s the ramping up that’s obviously the concern in terms of consumables and a healthy workforce who can keep up with it.”

Murdoch thinks these constraints, while important to note, are likely only to last in the short-term. Companies are rapidly working to produce tests that can be conducted outside of labs or more efficiently inside them and manufacturers of relevant materials are increasing their production. Given enough time, the new tests will alleviate the burden on supply chains and workforce alike.

“What we’re going to see in the next while – and I think it’s going to be fairly quick – is they’ll be working very hard to get things quickly onto the market and available. Once we’re over this big hump I imagine the supply chains will improve, there will be better tests, they will be more easily able to be done. It won’t take as much technical expertise by lab staff.”

Read more of Newsroom’s Covid-19 coverage here. 

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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