- This is part 2 of a diary Sir Ian Taylor is providing to the Herald over the course of his travel trial.
I am currently over the Pacific on route to LA and after a rather hectic 12 hours when it looked like 151 Off the Bench may have been grounded before take-off, I have a few hours before landing in LA to reflect on what I have learned so far.
Currently the only official medical requirement before setting out on an international flight is that you must show you have tested negative within 72 hours of departure. Air New Zealand has announced it will also require proof of vaccination in the future but on this trip that was not required.
So, how was the testing process?
Despite the significant amount of planning that has gone into this trial, working through the documentation required by MBIE for its 150 Self-Isolation Programme and with MOH on the medical protocols I will be required to meet on my return, it was the seemingly simple requirement of a negative PCR test 72 hours before my flight that almost grounded me at Dunedin airport on Monday.
The first issue that I hope will be examined at the end of this trial is – Why 72 hours?
If the Delta variant is contagious and infectious enough to lock down Auckland for three months, why is it that the testing regime for international travel allows you three days to catch it, after you have been tested.
I suspect the answer to that is the testing regime itself. Having decided on one laboratory-based test for the entire country, that system has come under such enormous pressure that there have been instances of the results taking up to five days to be returned. In my case it was this delay that almost meant that I could not board my flight in Dunedin on Monday.
I had taken my test on Friday, at a cost of $279, and was told that I would receive the result by email or text, hopefully, in the next 24 hours. By Monday morning, as I headed out to the airport to take a saliva-based MicroGEM PCR test, PCR being the gold standard for Covid testing, I still had no record of the Friday nasal test I had undergone.
At the airport, under the supervision of Dr David Saul of MicroGEM I followed some extremely simple instructions and placed a small vial of saliva into a device that informed me I would have my result in 27 minutes. The test cost $50 and told me I was Covid free.
Despite having had $115 million spent on it over the past 18 months, half of that from the US government, this potential Kiwi-based solution has not been picked up by MOH for trialing in any of its quarantine facilities. As Dr Saul pointed out, New Zealand is arguably the best place in the world to be rapid testing technologies like these and having a real-world environment where they could test against the current official test regime would be an incredible opportunity. The MicroGEM system is currently under review for FDA approval and evidence able to be provided from an environment such as a quarantine facility in New Zealand would have been invaluable for this Kiwi technology.
Because the MicroGEM test is not yet recognised by MOH, the only way I could board my flight was to provide evidence from the test I had taken three days earlier. That result eventually arrived three days after I took it, an hour after my 27-minute test – and 45 minutes before being called to board my flight.
Because I was in Dunedin, I didn't have access to another Kiwi-based solution, Rako Science, which other members of the 150 Self-Isolation programme based in Auckland had recommended for its speed of response. Currently, if you are in Auckland, they can guarantee a same-day test result on the day of your flight if you take the test by 8.30am. On my return I will be trialing the Rako Science system during my self-isolation as well.
One of the goals we have set for the 151 Off the Bench programme is to report on ways in which technology could be used to improve the current processes that are coming under increasing pressure as demand increases. Of course it will be horses for courses – but we need more horses in the race.
One of those is the Orbis Immunity test that I took at the Cavendish Family Doctors Clinic in Mangere on Monday afternoon before my flight. Basically this test, developed at Auckland University, measures the level of immunity the vaccine is providing at any given time. It is now well documented that the effectiveness of the vaccine diminishes over time so it's important to know what that level of protection is. This will be important for the discussions we have around the need for booster shots.
Currently the discussion is around the most susceptible. The Orbis test could take the guesswork out of that and provide science-based evidence of who needs a booster rather than who is in a group that might need one. I am sure all front-line workers in hospitals, the border, teachers and the MIQ facilities would find it hugely beneficial to know that their vaccine is still providing them with the protection they need and deserve, but if this test was made readily available then it could address the much wider issue for those in the community as well.
The test involves a small pinprick in the finger. It could be carried out at GP surgery, as mine was, or at a chemist. I had the result confirming I was good to go before I got back to the airport. Another solution coming Off the Bench.
So, as we start our descent into LAX, I do so in the knowledge that I am effectively vaccinated, have tested negative for Covid using two different PCR testing protocols - and have been in a confined space for almost 12 hours where, despite all efforts of a fabulous crew to keep us safe, I could quite easily have caught the virus.
It is for this reason that we have put in place a testing regime that will include daily antigen testing which I can buy over the counter at any drug store, remote health monitoring to detect any changes that may indicate Covid infection, effective PPE and social distancing, and full PCR tests prior to my departure on Sunday.
Now for BAU in the US!