Auckland company Ubiquitome is weeks away from having its Covid-19 testing device used on UK hospital staff through the National Health Service.
The biotech firm's device, Liberty 16, can conduct multiple tests from a throat swab and provide a result in 50 minutes. Current testing takes at least a day.
• What the coronavirus lockdown means for you and how it will be enforced
• Lockdown approaches but Jacinda Ardern says to stay at home now
• Lockdown loss: Auckland city centre to lose $5 million a day
• Covid-19 coronavirus: How deep are your pockets? Investors face a test
Ubiquitome chairman Paul Pickering said it is named Liberty to signify freedom "from men in white coats" or centralised laboratory testing, and 16 because that's how many tests it can do at once.
It is a lightweight handheld device that can connect to a smartphone, enabling testing to be done onsite. Results are delivered to an app.
Pickering won't be drawn on how much a contract with the NHS could be worth but said the company currently sells each device for US$195 ($333). It discounted the price of Liberty 16 in the past two weeks from US$595 as it moved its business strategy toward battling Covid-19.
Pickering said the device is being made available to groups who want to try it out at this time. The lower price covers not much more than its costs.
"We are not going to make a lot of money right now doing what we are doing but we believe the business aspects will take care of themselves."
The unit is currently being tested by microbiologist Jonathan Edgeworth at Guy's and St Thomas's NHS Foundation Trust in London.
Justin O'Grady is research group leader at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, which is working on the project. He told the Independent he wants to use the device to test self-isolating health workers and get them back on the job as quickly as possible.
"We have to be careful of health and safety and we have to be sure we have a test that performs to a certain standard but these are extraordinary times so we would try to do that and get that process validated as quickly as we could," he added.
Pickering said the UK work was being funded from the hospital's existing resources, "which as you can imagine are under pressure."
"They are seeking further funding from the UK government to roll it out and expand the study. It is likely to be within weeks not months."
Asked how much such a contract would be worth, he said the firm was "just focused on getting solutions right now."
"The business will end up taking care of itself, you can do the maths on the number of GP practitioners." There are more than 7,600 GP practices in the UK, NHS figures show.
Pickering said the five-person company had a contract with a manufacturer in Albany which could produce tens of thousands of devices a month if a deal was reached.
"To be candid it would be a formidable ramp up. The main pressure will be on supply chain as it reaches back into China."
Pickering said supply chain pressure from China was easing. The company owns all the intellectual property for the product so if scale was needed it could partner with another business, although that was not part of the current plan.
The device is an open system compatible with different types of test kits including those the US Federal Drug Administration uses.
Pickering said the company had just completed a $1 million capital raising and had already received $10m in government funding.
Companies Office records show University of Otago and former NZ Burger King owner Mark Backhaus - who is chair of Synthasee Biotech - have small holdings in the firm.
Pickering said the company had had discussions with the Ministry of Health and "early-level DHB conversations," but "due to the pressure on resources they are prioritising accordingly."
Asked specifically about Ubiquitome at yesterday's daily media briefing, director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the ministry was looking at all testing options.
"I suspect this is a point of care testing option, which would help where it is important to get a rapid diagnosis or where it may take time to get a swab from a remote area. We have many many offers from overseas for testing options - nothing is off the table."
Bloomfield added that the ministry now had a specific workstream linking with the private sector in order to assess all options to battle Covid-19.