Coronavirus: Ministry of Health has completed just 140 saliva COVID-19 tests, despite having ability to do them six months ago

The Ministry of Health has completed just 140 saliva tests in total nationwide, despite private companies having the ability to do such tests on a large scale six months ago. 

The COVID-19 Response Minister says there's concern the saliva tests are not as accurate, but one Hamilton company says it's using internationally verified methods which they have confidence in.

The headquarters Hill Laboratories is based in the Hamilton suburb of Frankton. 

Scientists pore over yellow tubes, extracting the saliva for testing, a method developed by the Yale School of Public Health. 

"There's a lot of advantages with saliva testing, as the testing process in the lab is quicker and it uses fewer consumables," said Hill Laboratories microbiologist manager Eilidh Mowat.

"We had it set up in August or September of last year, so we were ready to offer the service and were offering it then," added chief executive Dr Jonno Hill.

The COVID-19 Response Minister appears less interested in saliva tests - saying they're not as reliable as the nasal variety. 

"The overall confidence is lower than PCR; PCR is still, around the world, regarded as the 'gold standard' test," Chris Hipkins said at a press conference from Parliament on Tuesday.

However PCR - technology which is used to amplify COVID-19 in a sample - is exactly what Hill Laboratories use to process their saliva. 

"Based on the literature that we've seen, we felt confident to offer the service," said Dr Hill.

The American Medical Journal found saliva tests had a similar sensitivity to that of the nasal swab, but the Ministry of Health has completed just 140 saliva tests nationwide as part of a voluntary rollout.

"There seems to be a reluctance to adopt and adapt to new technology," said National leader Judith Collins.

"The New Zealand Government won't trust the science from the rest of the world. It wants to do its own study. Why?" asks ACT leader David Seymour.

"Is New Zealanders' saliva different from other people's?"

The non-invasive saliva test has been used in other parts of the world for months. 

Hipkins says more saliva testing could happen here, but he won't say when. "I am not going to rule out expanding saliva testing," he said. 

With its vulnerable clientele, Ryman Healthcare isn't waiting - it's started doing saliva tests on staff. 

"We're putting our residents' safety as a priority and having that nice easy test just makes it easy," said Ryman Healthcare Driver Caleb Lepper.

The company's chief operations officer Cheyne Chalmers says it's an "efficient, effective test which has been FDA approved and is at the same standard as the PCR test".

Hill Laboratories are processing the Ryman tests, but believe they could contribute on a larger, national scale. 

Currently, the lab is only processing a handful of saliva tests - up to 200 a day. However, it has the capacity to upscale significantly.

"We are confident we could do up to 4000 a day," Dr Hill said.

And with so many high-risk workers, and the need to test regularly, spitting in a jar may soon replace sitting in a car.