PERTH, Australia – Australia is taking several measures to increase diagnostic testing for COVID-19 and rolling out a national surveillance app as it prepares to relax social distancing measures and get back to work.
To increase diagnostic capability, the Australian government has partnered with the Minderoo Foundation and private pathology providers to secure an additional 10 million COVID-19 test kits and pathology equipment to be installed across the country.
More than 500,000 COVID-19 tests have been completed to date, and the addition of 10 million tests across the country between now and the end of the year equates to an almost 20-fold increase in testing, the Ministry of Health said.
The increased testing capability is one of the precedent conditions the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has set for the next four weeks before easing social distancing and economic restrictions.
The diversification of COVID-19 testing supplies in Australia ensures adequate testing capability while there are uncertain supply lines and shortages globally.
The government’s aim is to increase testing and tracing, and slowly ease the restrictions and allow Australians to get back to work.
“Our approach to testing in Australia, already one of the highest rates per capita in the world, has been a vital part of our success in flattening the infection curve,” said Health Minister Greg Hunt.
“As we move to the next stage of our recovery, further expanding testing capacity and case ascertainment is one of the three critical steps we can take to protect Australians, avoid further spikes in community transmission and assist in easing restrictions.”
“The work of the Minderoo Foundation in helping to secure these high-quality PCR tests and equipment helps protect the Australian public, diversifies supply lines and provides us with a fundamental testing capacity for COVID-19. All of this affirms and strengthens our essential pathway out of the current restrictions and our investability as a nation,” Hunt said.
Australian Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said expansion of COVID-19 testing is an important part of a public health response to detect and control outbreaks if physical distancing measures are to be relaxed.
Minderoo, a philanthropic organization chaired by Australian businessman Andrew Forrest, has been able to source critical pathology equipment and testing supplies on behalf of the Australian government.
Testing allows the government to isolate the virus instead of the entire population and extinguish its growth instead of the country’s economy, Forrest said.
“By connecting people from across the commercial, research and health care sectors, we’ve been able to accelerate the set-up of new equipment, to help pull Australia out of its economic deep freeze,” Forrest said.
The COVID-19 test kits and equipment will be supplied by the Beijing Genomic Institute (BGI), Thermo Fisher and Tecan.
The government will enter into supply contracts with private pathology providers, including Sonic Healthcare and Healius, for the 13 BGI and 14 Tecan laboratory systems to expand testing in every state and territory.
Antibody test developed at Monash
Scientists at Monash University in Melbourne are repurposing technology they developed to test for a patient’s immunity to allergens and influenza to make a rapid test to determine who has immunity to COVID-19, who remains infectious, and who is at risk of developing a severe form of the disease.
The researchers will start receiving cell samples from colleagues in Melbourne and three main coronavirus hotspots – Italy, China and New York.
The test will look for differences in the blood of patients with mild disease vs. those with a severe infection in the hope of finding biomarkers that can predict who may need early medical intervention.
The test looks at memory B lymphocytes, the cells of the immune system that make antibodies to invading pathogens. If there is evidence of a large population of memory B cells specific to a pathogen, then it is likely that person has been infected sometime in the past and will remain immune to the disease.
“It is important that we now move from needing a test that simply tells whether someone is infected, which is the priority now, to needing a test that can determine who is infectious, who is immune, who is going to get a serious case of the disease and who will only develop a mild case of upper airway infection,” Associate Professor Menno van Zelm said.
“This and other tests like it will provide us with a more nuanced approach to managing the disease,” he said.
As of May 1, Australia’s Therapeutic Good Administration (TGA) has approved 45 COVID-19 diagnostic tests, 30 of which are point-of-care tests. Twenty-six of the approved tests have come from China, 10 from the U.S., four from Korea, two from Australia, two from Spain, and one from Denmark.
All of the COVID-19 diagnostics received expedited approvals, and the TGA is now undertaking a post-market review of the point-of-care tests. The majority are serology-based tests, which detect COVID-19 antibodies, immunoglobulin G (IgG) and immunoglobulin M (IgM).
COVIDSafe surveillance app rolled out
The Australian government launched a new surveillance app this week called COVIDSafe that will notify users of possible exposure to the virus.
The technology automates and improves what state and territory health officials already do manually, and it will speed up the process of identifying people who have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, stopping the spread of the virus in the community.
The app is voluntary, and so far, 3.5 million Australians have downloaded it, but the government is asking all Australians to download the app in order to start easing some of the social distancing restrictions.
The COVIDSafe app uses Bluetooth to look for other phones that also have the app installed. It then securely makes a digital handshake, which notes the date and time, distance and duration of the contact. All information collected by the app is securely encrypted and stored in the app on the user’s phone. No one, not even the user, can access it.
Unless a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, no contact information collected in the app is disclosed or able to be accessed. Once a person agrees and uploads the data, only the relevant state or territory public health officials will have access to information.
The app keeps contact information for 21 days, which covers the maximum incubation period for the virus and the time it takes for someone to be tested for COVID-19.
“Once the coronavirus pandemic is over, and Australia no longer needs the app, the app and the information on it will be deleted permanently,” Hunt said.
A new determination under the Biosecurity Act will ensure information provided voluntarily through the app will only be accessible for use by authorized state and territory health officials. Any other access or use will be a criminal offense.
As of May 1, there have been more than 6,760 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Australia, and 92 people have died. There are now roughly 1,000 active cases in the country of 23 million people.
Australia’s National Cabinet endorsed medical advice from the AHPPC, which set out 15 key metrics to be achieved before easing restrictions. Australia is currently on track to meet 11 of those 15 conditions.
Governments will expediate four conditions – more diagnostic testing, state and territory surveillance plans and resources, use of the COVIDSafe app, and stocks of personal protective equipment.