Every day the Prime Minister, Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Minister Chris Hipkins are urging anyone with "Covid like symptoms to get a test and then isolate until you get a negative result". Those results can now take up to five days to arrive, and once the border opens those numbers are going to swamp the laboratories and place thousands of people in isolation while they wait for their results.
The waiting times for the laboratories to deliver their result will get even longer and the country could grind to a halt.
The Lucira test that we reacquainted the MoH with after a year and a half of having done nothing about it, gives a clinically approved, PCR equivalent result in 30 minutes. So, if you test negative, you can carry on life as normal. No isolation needed while you wait for your result. Disruption to the workforce and our economy reduced, workers who live on their pay cheques simply to survive day to day, able to go back to work after 30 minutes, not three days.
A test regime that limits the waiting time for a result from days to minutes is a game changer. It could have been in place a year and a half ago – it can be put in place now and all it needs is for Government officials to move at the speed of Covid.
In December we reopened the communication lines between Lucira Health and the Ministry of Health. On January 20th Lucira Health delivered the usability and clinical trial information they submitted for their FDA approval, along with the independent test results from Israel, Canada, Singapore and Qatar.
Despite the number of technically advanced countries in the world that have approved Lucira, the ministry has decided they need to conduct more test of their own. Who knows how long those will take – but given the year and a half the ministry has lost for us, we are going to make it easier for them and do something that will hopefully help to keep our Tongan neighbours safe as well.
Over the past two weeks we have worked with the Lucira Health company in the US on their offer to gift 2,000 kits of their test to the Tongan Red Cross for use by the Tongan government to help protect their borders. Anyone disembarking a plane or a boat in Tonga will now be able to provide evidence of their Covid status within 30 minutes. In the rare case of an invalid test a second test will simply take that time out to one hour.
The containers are packed in San Francisco, and Air New Zealand has agreed to fly them, for free, to New Zealand and then on to Tonga where the Tonga government could deploy the test in any way that could help them protect their borders from the influx of Covid by detecting it within 30 minutes.
If the ministry wants to conduct its own tests, then wouldn't it make sense to work alongside the Tongan government to see Lucira being used in a real-world situation where it is making a difference. If they need someone to show them how to use the tests, then I am free to help with that because I have done it four times just following the very simple video that is online.
If they want their scientists to crawl all over it – send them to Tonga. Or take up another offer – introduce Lucira to the MIQs where they already have hundreds of Omicron cases so they can compare it directly to their current nasopharyngeal test in a controlled environment.
Once satisfied that Lucira does what countries like Israel, Singapore, Canada, Taiwan and the US all say it does, they could then immediately engage with the team at Lucira to see if there is any chance they can make it happen here so that when the Prime Minister next urges people to go and have a test they can do so safe in the knowledge that it will only take 30 minutes to confirm they can resume a normal life if they are negative.
The Government is also about to reopen our borders to our stranded Kiwis overseas and their plan is to give them three rapid antigen tests, if they can find any, and send them home to self-isolate. Going from the totally restrictive MIQ system to an almost hands-off self-isolation programme, using a test they had banned as being ineffective for over two years, is yet another sign of a plan without a plan.
Here's one. Why not set up a large facility alongside the airport, or use some of the MIQ hotels you don't need anymore, and use Lucira to test arriving travellers before they go home to self-isolate. They will have their result in 30 minutes, be clear to travel home and take a couple more of the tests so they can continue to monitor their health until they leave self-isolation.
And yes, there will be a cost to that but the millions you have spent already on MIQ, not to mention the millions you have paid for the time-constrained PCR test you currently use, this cost will seem minuscule. If your reason for spending that money was to catch Covid and keep us safe – then this is definitely a cheaper way to do that.
Sadly, just as you did with the RATs, the delay in responding to this offer made a year and a half ago may mean the global supply chain could delay the implementation of Lucira in bulk down here, but I understand that the new test coming out in April also does influenza A and B. Given the next pressure that will come on our health system will be caused by the flu coming over the border, how useful would it be to diagnose it at the border so travellers can be treated before they pass it on.
I understand the CEO of Lucira has put New Zealand as his number one priority for this new version. Let's not ignore his offer again.
You might also be interested to know that Kudu Spectrum, the rapid antigen test provider we put Dr Bloomfield in touch with, is also sending in thousands of free RATs to Tonga and Air New Zealand is picking up the cost of getting them there.
This is how fast businesses can work when you bring them off the bench.
There is always a risk involved in moving too fast, but sometimes the cost of not moving at all is even greater. If the Government picks up on the Tongan opportunity, which is already underway, we can lower that risk and move extremely fast.
This solution is a humanitarian one that will also lift our knowledge of a test that could change the way we approach Covid testing – a system that has remained unchanged for more than two years.
Prime Minister, in business we call that a win/win and all it needs is for you to tell the Ministry of Health to press the go button.
• Ian Taylor is the founder and managing director of Animation Research. He was named the 2019 New Zealand Innovator of the Year and in 2020 was awarded the Deloitte Top 200 Visionary Leader.