Highs and lows
Associate Professor James Ussher and his team, from the University of Otago and Southern Community Laboratories, were at the forefront of the COVID-19 response in New Zealand. They’re now working on a vaccine to prevent infection
As early as January 2020, New Zealand declared a five-fold approach to COVID-19, aiming to “Plan for it, keep it out (through border control and self-isolation), stamp it out (through test, track and trace), manage it (through infection control, treatment and closure of institutions) and recover from it.”
To date, their approach has appeared effective, with a total of 1217 cases and 22 deaths. James describes the highs and lows of the last few months.
What did you focus on first?
In mid-January we knew that this novel coronavirus spreading in China was of significant international concern and that there was a very real risk it would reach New Zealand. Working with my colleagues Prof Miguel Quinones-Mateu at the University of Otago and Dr Jenny Grant at Southern Community Laboratories, we worked to set up a test for the novel coronavirus, based on the findings of a German group.
A real challenge was the lack of positive control material to develop the test (special specimens important in evaluating reliability). Therefore, Prof Quinones-Mateu’s group designed and made their own artificial controls. We set the test up on an instrument that was able to analyse samples as they arrived in the laboratory, even after hours and on weekends. We were able to go live with the test on March 13, which was just in time, as this was the same day that the first positive case was detected in our region.
What were some of the challenges?
The major challenge we experienced, along with other diagnostic laboratories, was the supply of reagents and consumables required for testing due to unprecedented global demand and disruption of supply chains. We were frequently running with only three to five days of testing capacity on hand, desperately awaiting delivery of the next shipment. To try and mitigate this risk we set up a total of four different platforms to ensure our ability to continue testing.
The other major challenge was the rapid increase in testing volumes that needed to be managed in the context of a lockdown. The staff at Southern Community Laboratories were amazing in their willingness to change their way of working, splitting into two “bubbles” to ensure the laboratory could keep working if there were cases amongst staff, and working hard to clear testing volumes.