COVID-19 saliva testing offered to quarantine staff in New Zealand as 'added protection measure'

"Less invasive" saliva testing is now being offered to quarantine staff as an "added protection measure" against the potential spread of COVID-19 in the community. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Friday that workers in quarantine facilities will be offered voluntary saliva tests in addition to their regular weekly testing from Monday. 

The additional option will be rolled out at the Jet Park quarantine facility in Auckland on Monday, and then to other dual-use managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities in Wellington and Christchurch. 

"This new precautionary measure is in response to higher rates of infection overseas and the more transmissible variants of COVID-19, and is the latest in a series of added protection measures at the border," Hipkins said. 

It comes after genome sequencing of COVID-19 cases in MIQ identified 11 cases of the more transmissible UK variant of coronavirus, as well as six cases of the strain found in South Africa. 

The Ministry of Health said a total of 29 samples of the UK variant and seven of the South African variant have been discovered in travellers to New Zealand.

Hipkins said the saliva tests could mean positive cases of COVID-19 are picked up among workers at quarantine facilities faster and will provide staff with another layer of assurance.   

"Saliva tests have a lower sensitivity than the nasopharyngeal test, so won't replace our ongoing 'gold standard' diagnostic testing methods already in place at the border and in our community. They will be offered as an additional screening tool for our highest risk border workers. The tests are less invasive."

COVID-19 saliva test.
COVID-19 saliva test. Photo credit: Getty

Quarantine staff are among the most tested people in the country and perform a critical role in keeping COVID-19 out of New Zealand communities.

Border workers are also tested regularly. The Government introduced new measures in November for border staff, including increasing the frequency for some of those at higher risk.

The November rules included weekly testing of ship pilots and some other port workers, fortnightly testing for port workers not already covered, and fortnightly testing for airport workers not already covered who interact with international arrivals or transiting passengers. 

The Government earlier this week extended mandatory pre-departure testing to all passengers to New Zealand, except for travellers from Australia, Antarctica and most Pacific Islands, which comes into effect on Monday. 

The policy was extended after only applying to arrivals from the United States and Britain. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

From February 8, all passengers arriving in New Zealand except those from exempted countries without evidence of a negative approved test or medical certificate will incur an infringement offence fee or a fine not exceeding $1000. 

The Government has also expanded day one testing in MIQ to all passengers to New Zealand, except for arrivals from Australia, Antarctica and most Pacific Islands. 

All travellers are still required to complete 14 days in MIQ, including undergoing routine day three and day 12 tests.

The COVID-19 pandemic has so far claimed the lives of more than 2 million people across the globe, and there are currently an estimated 25 million active cases. More than 70 million people have recovered from the virus.