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Sir Ian Taylor: The biggest, and potentially most dangerous, shortcoming in our Covid response

OPINION:

The government’s overwhelming focus on vaccination hides the biggest, and potentially most dangerous, shortcoming in our Covid response, one that was highlighted by Chris Hipkins’ “Reconnecting New Zealand” announcement on Wednesday.

Testing.

We are one of the only countries I know of that has based our entire, publicly funded testing regime on a single PCR test. For months, we have seenthe dangers of that, as the waiting times for testing results have grown from hours to days.

During my 151 trial I was able to directly compare the effectiveness of the official nasopharyngeal PCR test with two other options. One was the IANZ-accredited Rako Science PCR test, and the other was the 27-minute MicroGEM PCR test currently awaitingapproval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

The official taxpayer-funded test did not compare well.

I almost missed my flight to the US because the result took three days to arrive, and the test I did on my arrival back into Auckland was almost two days behind both of the New Zealand alternatives.

• READ MORE: Sir Ian Taylor’s final MIQ log book

There are reports coming out of Māngere that testing there has fallen behind by up to five days, with thousands waiting for their results.

If true, that’s five days when the most vulnerable of our people are out of work, with no money, and self-isolating with whānauwithout knowing whetherthey are infected.

What are they supposed to do – let their families go hungry, rent go unpaid, or breach their isolation in the hope thatthey aren’t infected?

The Ministry of Healthhas described the nasopharyngeal test as being the gold standard in testing. It could be argued that the only thing gold isthe millions in taxpayer funds that are going offshore to Canada while the New Zealand-based PCR test is strictly user-pays. Every time Dr Bloomfield urges us to get tested, that’s the Canadian cash register you can hear ringing out. And we, the taxpayers, are paying.

Last week the ministryfinally accepted results from the New Zealand Rako Science test for diagnostic purposes, but it remains off the list of government-funded options. There are only two publicly funded options: the nasopharyngeal test that has thousands of people waiting up to a week in Māngere, and the $60 millionsaliva test, from the same Canadian company, that got abandoned just five days into my self-isolation trial.

The Rako Science lab can process 10,000 test a day, but as yet they have not been asked to help clear up the Māngere backlog. And to make matters worse, the government is now working on legislation that will enable itto simply take over the Rako Science labs at a price that Dr Bloomfield woulddetermine.

How does that work again? We will use taxpayer funds to pay a Canadian company for a system that is disadvantaging so many people out in Māngere, but we will use legislation to allow the takeover of the more efficient New Zealand company that could clear the backlog in a day.

And then there’s arguably one of the most important tests that is being ignored by the ministry. That is the Kiwi-developed Orbis test that will tell us how well we are protected and when we will need a booster. Instead of embracing this Kiwi invention, under government rules, Orbis will have to take their technology offshore and find two other countries that will approve its use, before they can use it here.

This is a technology that has the potential to be a world leader that could generate millions in export earnings. More importantly, it could help save lives here!

I don’t know how you do this, but if ever there was a time to call for a Royal Commission into the government’s handling of the Covid response around testing — and in this case I include the Orbis test — then surely this is it.

The Auditor-General has already called into question the awarding of the now-abandoned $60m contract for saliva testing to the same company that won the contract for the nasopharyngeal test that is taking days to deliver results.

The only government contact that I have had since starting this trial was when the Herald was contacted by Ashley Bloomfield’s office to tell them that the saliva test hadn’t been abandoned — despite those being the words used by Minister Hipkins — buthad been deferred to some time in the future.

If they can’t talk to each other, then maybe it is time they talked to a Royal Commission.


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