Coronavirus: Rapid testing could bring towns out of lockdown, importer claims

The head of a Queenstown-based stem cell company says she offered the Government access to rapid testing kits for COVID-19, but was rebuffed. 

Emma Hart, general manager of ReGen Cellular, says the kits are 96 percent accurate and can deliver a result in just 15 minutes.

"People are undergoing PCR testing - this is the lab-based test. It obviously takes lab capability, it takes machines, it takes trained personnel. It also takes time," she told The AM Show on Monday.

"There are strict testing criteria, and we're hearing more and more people are being turned away because they don't make the criteria."

New Zealand has had more than 500 confirmed cases of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, so far. On Sunday Director-General of Health and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the country's first death from the disease, which has claimed more than 33,000 lives worldwide. 

"In the last three days the price of those kits has doubled because every government in the world is scrambling to buy these tests," said Hart.

"We presented our proposal to the Government last Sunday night... The reply we got back from the Government was that they are bolstering their PCR capability, they are buying more machines, opening more labs and training more personnel. This is going to take time."

PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction. These tests detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus' genetic material, proving whether or not a patient is actively infected. 

The rapid tests only look for antibodies, which suggest a patient is either infected or has been exposed to the virus. It can't tell if the patient is presently infected however.

Hart said the tests her company has access to have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). US media reports while they have been approved for manufacture and distribution, their accuracy hasn't actually been tested by authorities.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said they had received a "large  number of suggestions around technology developments which will help track, speed up testing monitor and ultimately defeat COVID-19.

"We're not able to comment on our conversations with individual companies, but New Zealand-led innovation is definitely in the mix."

Hart said the rapid test could be used as a form of triage, so the lab tests aren't overwhelmed with negative cases. 

"What we are hoping is these could be a first line of defence... we are certainly not wanting to undermine the Government's PCR testing protocol, but what we are saying is this could be a triage and it could pick up people who have very low or mild symptoms that wouldn't actually be able to be tested under the current PCR protocols."

And as a faster, less expensive way to test, Hart believes it could be used on entire towns, allowing them to come out of lockdown earlier - those known to be infected isolated until they've overcome the virus, and everyone else free to return to normal life.

"We're an island here in Queenstown. We could essentially block our two roads in and our two roads out. We could test our whole community."

Queenstown, where ReGen Cellular is based.
Queenstown, where ReGen Cellular is based. Photo credit: Getty

ReGen Cellular says the kits it's sourced from China will be made available to essential and frontline health workers in Queenstown. 

Spain last week had to return a number of Chinese-made rapid testing kits after discovering they were faulty, with an accuracy level under 30 percent.

"With this level of accuracy, it is impossible to put them into routine use," Spanish Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases spokeswoman María del Mar Tomás told EFE, a Spanish news agency.