Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has visited the ESR science centre in Porirua, where scientists have been mapping coronavirus genomes.
"I made a request of whether or not I could come and visit you on site a little while ago because A) I'm just so interested in what it is that you do, but B) I wanted to say thank you," Ardern said.
"I've read more than one of your reports and the insights that they provide us, particularly as we go through this period of resurgence. The insights that you'll be able to provide us to help us with our cluster management and control in solving some of the mysteries that present themselves has just been critical."
"I also consider what you do here at this time to be really at the cutting edge of information and research and insight that we can provide the rest of the world," she said.
"We're in a unique scenario where there aren't too many places where we can really nail down or eliminate possibilities of what could or couldn't happen through transmission. And that is because we've been in a position where we've managed to get ourselves into a status without community transmission. And so, when we see that reemergence, it means we are able to rule out other possibilities.
"And that potentially helps provide us insight into what is and isn't happening with transmission in New Zealand. And that's something I don't know presents an opportunity in many other places."
Ardern first visited the intelligence hub, a sort of crisis center that has been running since January compiling data. ESR Strategy Director Lisa Oakley showed Ardern a series of charts, including one which showed cases per thousand for selected countries.
"And, of course, we're continuing to monitor the international situation," Oakley said. "And if you need to reply to Donald Trump, this is a really good way of saying we're probably in quite a good space."
She absent-mindedly held a 3D printed virus bug in her hand as Dr Joep de Ligt used a screen to zoom in on the latest virus clusters.
"Is this where you are going to create the tree?" Ardern asked, saying she was particularly interested in that type of modelling.
Ardern then donned a protective gown to visit the labs. In one, scientists were testing sewerage from near the Jet Park Hotel quarantine facility to see if they could detect the virus. It's a research project which scientists hope might eventually be helpful in detecting new outbreaks around the country.
Other labs were extracting RNA from the virus.
Ardern then met privately with some of the top scientists for about 20 minutes, longer than had been planned.
ESR CEO Peter Lennox said afterward that Ardern told them that science has always interested her, since the days her father was a police officer.
"If she didn't get into politics, we believe, she would have moved into forensic science or the type of work that we do here at ESR," Lennox said.
"So she's naturally interested in the things we do."
Lennox said Ardern had asked if there was any way the government could help with ensuring the lab got samples more quickly or even in making connections with overseas labs.
De Ligt explained how the process works. Positive tests from labs are sent to them for sequencing.
"We receive it here, we extract the RNA, and from the RNA we then specifically amplify out the virus, because there might be human material, bacterial material or other things in there, and we only want to look at the virus."
"We specifically make many, many copies of the virus and that is what we then put in our sequencing machines, and then read that sequence, so we can then piece it back together and see where in the family tree it sits."
He explained the idea of creating the virus trees.
"When the virus copies itself and then infects another person, a little signature is left in its genome, so it makes a copying mistake. And then that copying mistake is also present in the next person. And there might be a new mistake. And as that progresses, as this virus spreads and keeps on spreading, more of those mutations start to appear, and we can use those copying mistakes to reconstruct where the virus might have come from."
Their work recently helped distinguish between the main cluster in Auckland and the Rydges Auckland hotel maintenance worker, who they found had a different strain of the virus matching to a U.S. traveller who'd stayed at the hotel in managed isolation.
Lennox said Ardern had also taken the time to send a selfie message to his wife, who is celebrating her birthday stranded in Scotland before she returns to New Zealand next week.
"I'm quite stoic guys but it brought up goose pimples for me," Lennox said.