Coronavirus: Lab teams work around the clock amid pressure on supplies of key materials

A clinical microbiologist who oversees lab testing for COVID-19 around the country says lab teams are working around the clock amid pressure on key resources, including access to nasal swabs and reagent chemicals. 

Newshub has seen emails from PHOs to hundreds of Auckland doctors telling them to switch to using throat swabs because of issues with the supply of nasal swabs. 

Nasal swabs are considered internationally as the most accurate swab for detecting COVID-19.

Dr Juliet Elvy, a clinical microbiologist based in Nelson, who oversees lab work in parts of the South Island, Wellington, Taranaki and Auckland told Newshub part of the issue with the lack of nasal swabs is because most had come from a factory in northern Italy, and that supply chain had "run dry". 

Because of demand for key items like swabs, Dr Elvy said labs had been forced to implement "slight rationing" to ensure no parts of the country were undersupplied. 

"We just need to keep on doing what we are doing - working really hard to secure these supply lines, and remain agile as laboratories to change to the ever-changing situation that we're faced with."  

Dr Elvy says she's proud of all the laboratory teams nationwide. 

"This is something that is going to have to continue for many weeks and months to come. This is a marathon not a sprint. It's been a fantastic effort from the laboratory scientists, the technicians, the phlebotomists. The whole range of laboratory services have really stepped up."  

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She says there are backup plans to provide throat swabs if nasal swabs run out, but supply chains for both swabs and chemicals are under significant pressure. 

On Friday, the Southern Community Lab in Dunedin lab ran out of chemical reagents to do the tests.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says the staff acted appropriately and prioritised the tests.

National's Health Spokesperson Michael Woodhouse says lab teams are being forced to ration due to the Health Ministry's supply issues.

"There's no doubt the testing capacity that the Director-General said was in place simply wasn't. 

"And laboratories around the country are having to ration the tests that are coming in from GPs and the assessment centres."

On Tuesday Dr Bloomfield said New Zealand had 50,000 nasal swabs, but it's clear they're not getting to places where they're needed like Auckland. 

Another 250,000 have been ordered however, but the Ministry says they might not be available for another month.

In terms of complete testing kits, we have access to right now with both reagent chemicals and swabs, we have 44,000 which the Ministry says is enough to last 15 days. 

Dr Elvy says: "We're not relaxed about it. But we're not at the point where we are about to run out tomorrow. But it's kind of somewhere in between".

She says the pressure to upscale testing must be met with quality testing both in terms of how testing is conducted at testing stations and in terms of assured supply of kit. 

"If we relax on the quality then that has an impact in terms of the potential for possibly missing cases."

And missing cases is exactly what we don't want as community testing continues to ramp up.