Dunedin businessman Sir Ian Taylor left for the US last night on the first leg of his public self-managed isolation trial, supported by an impressive range of ingenious Kiwi technology including a test that was originally designed for cows. Jane Phare reports.
Just hours before taking off on his flight to Los Angeles last night, Sir Ian Taylor was having a tiny pin-prick of blood taken from his finger by South Auckland doctor Api Talemaitoga. It was a final pre-takeoff-precaution, one that he and the inventors of the technology hope will become commonplace as part of New Zealand's - and the world's - battle with Covid-19.
The blood test, known as Orbis Arca, was developed by Auckland company Orbis Diagnostics to quickly determine the level of immunity a person has to Covid-19. That includes people who have been single or double vaccinated, or those who may have antibodies from previously catching coronavirus.
The Orbis test is just one example of Kiwi cleverness offered to the Animation Research founder when he was first given approval by the Government for his #151 Off The Bench self-managed isolation trial. The technology was originally designed to test hormone levels in cows to assess their health, nutritional status, and to measure progesterone levels to improve the chances of successful insemination. The test was designed to rapidly assess every cow at every milking.
It was technology that Professor David Williams, of the University of Auckland, first came across during a fellowship in Ireland nearly a decade ago. In the summer of 2013 Williams, now based in Kerikeri, got together a team of young scientists and students with his colleague Professor Cather Simpson.
Having made good progress they were about to raise money to go ahead with cowshed trials when Covid-19 burst on the scene. It wasn't long before the academic team made the connection between cowsheds and crowded airports, Williams jokes. Why not adapt the technology to measure Covid antibody concentration in human blood to assess levels of immunity? One of those young scientists, Dr Matheus Vargas did his PhD on the subject and is now chief technology officer for Orbis Diagnostic, set up in 2016.
"It's just amazing what really bright young people can do when you give them a chance," Williams says.
Now the Orbis Arca blood test can assess, in 20 minutes without the use of a lab, a person's immunity levels. Yesterday Taylor, 71, who had his second vaccination in August, learned his immunity level was above the median.
"I'm happy with that," he said, shortly before boarding his flight.
Williams says everyone's response to the vaccine is slightly different, resulting in a range of antibody levels.
"The higher the concentration the less risk that you have if you're exposed to Covid."
Overseas data shows that immunity drops over time, particularly in the older age group.
The test will help those with a lower immunity make decisions to take extra precautions such as avoiding very crowded spaces, and always wearing a mask.
Williams and his team also foresee a use of the Orbis test at the borders as a risk-assessment tool, and at pharmacies and medical practices.
"There's an enormous amount of interest in this," Williams says. "Maybe you're going on an overseas trip or just a bit concerned about your immunity levels."
He also envisages the test being used at a corporate level to assess risk for staff more likely to be exposed to Covid. Talemaitoga is clinical director of a trial involving 175 Air New Zealand staff with results due out later this month. Initial results are showing a strong correlation between more recent vaccinations and high immunity levels. As time passes, immunity levels drop.
Taylor says the technology should be adopted by the Government to judge when Covid-19 booster shots are needed, and that a strategy should be in place before winter hits.
Talemaitoga:" New Zealand is smart enough and we've got the science. Let's use it to plan for next year. We're just being a bit too reactive in how we do things. I understand we are flying the plane as we're building it because it's new but actually we've got some really good data and evidence. We should be listening."
If all goes well with his plan, Taylor hopes the #151 protocols will become a blueprint for other privately run managed isolations to take pressure off a hopelessly over-burdened MIQ system. While overseas he will have a meeting with Fox Sport in LA about golf, and another with Major League Baseball in San Francisco before returning to New Zealand - Covid free he hopes - in five days' time.
But yesterday his best-laid plans nearly came unstuck. With the eyes of the business community, and others, on the trial, nothing was left to chance by his team of experts and helpers. Taylor was so confident that nothing would go wrong that he booked a non-refundable return flight from Auckland to Los Angeles.
He had his nasopharyngeal Covid-19 swab test 72 hours before take-off, as required by the Government, packed his bags and headed for Dunedin Airport yesterday morning. But the results of his Covid-19 test didn't come through until an hour and 15 minutes before his flight to Auckland, causing a last-minute panic. Without the negative result Taylor would have been unable to board the flight and he would have missed the connection to LA.
"It was very stressful," he said last night. "Imagine what it would be like for someone who doesn't travel often."
It is a classic example, he says, of why the Government needs to start embracing some of the new, Kiwi-developed technology that will help streamline a system that is past its use-by date, to get the country and the economy moving.
That technology includes the use of Dunedin company MicroGEM's fast saliva Covid-19 testing equipment called Spitfire6830 which will produce a positive or negative test in 25 minutes. Taylor was tested at Dunedin and Auckland Airports and, with the help of New Zealand's Consul-General to Los Angeles Jeremy Clarke-Watson, he will be tested in the US as well.
Because the Spitfire6830 hasn't yet received FDA approval, the American authorities won't allow the MicroGem technology to be used officially. But Clarke-Watson ruled that the consulate was New Zealand territory and that Taylor could do the test there.
Taylor hopes that on his return the Government will engage in an open conversation with his team and the technology companies involved.
"What I've found in the three to four weeks since we've started this is there are some amazing people out there, some amazing technology."
The key is vaccination and constant testing, he says. "The more efficient they can get the testing done the faster you will be able to come out of self isolation." Taylor will need to isolate for 14 days in his privately run facility on his return during which time his health will be monitored daily. He hopes that his trial will lead to isolation times being reduced to four or five days, once testing is improved.
• Sir Ian Taylor will be contributing a diary to the Herald over the course of his travel trial.