The federal government “ignored” early COVID-19 test capacity warning

Exclusive: Documents revealed by Nine News show that the federal government ignored warnings about the need for greater coronavirus test features in early 2020.

A group of industry experts, consisting of Dr. Tony Radford, Professor Paul Wood and another, began submitting comprehensive concepts to broad-based national testing programs from 1 April.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration had already approved eight COVID-19 laboratory tests and six Point of Care (POC) tests for delivery in Australia at this time.

The first document sent to the then chief researcher Dr. Alan Finkel, former secretary of the Ministry of Health Glenys Beauchamp and the then chief physician dr. Brendan Murphy, made nine important recommendations, including the need for:

– Comprehensive testing to secure jobs

Adoption of fast, low cost, high volume test systems

Modest but critical assistance in Australian supply chains and production

“We did not say that you should not do PCR tests, we just said that you will definitely need more tools,” said Prof. Wood.

“It was very clear from the start that PCR testing alone would not be enough.”

Another document also outlined the concept of “Gatekeeper” test devices; a fast and inexpensive kit that could be used as a broad screening tool to ease the pressure on pathology laboratories as cases grew.

“One of the things we said is that PCR testing becomes a logistical problem, so why not do the whole initial screening using point of care tests and then just confirm the positive results it would mean that you actually did not want to max out your PCR test. “

On April 23, another report prepared by the trio was sent directly to the office of Federal Health Secretary Greg Hunt.

The document again recommended that the federal government initiate a significant testing program by using rapid tests, among other things, to screen people in all high-risk occupations, nursing homes, homeless shelters and prisons.

In recognition of the lower specificity of the POC test, the group recommended that positive results be referred to the PCR test for confirmation.

Health Minister Greg Hunt gives an update on the government's response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the Parliament House in Canberra
Health Minister Greg Hunt gives an update on the government’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the Parliament House in Canberra (Alex Ellinghausen)
Before April 28 Mr Hunt’s office replied and said that they had secured enough test capacity for the immediate period.

The same day, another document was sent to the then Chief Scientist urging the government to work with the industry to boost local manufacturing of point of care testing.

It warned of the risks of relying solely on “expensive imported products”, which could lead to unstable supply.

The first Australian-made rapid test, made by Innovation Scientific, was approved for delivery by TGA on 11 May 2020, but it could only be used under medical supervision.

Nearly two years later, Innovation Scientific is one of only two Australian manufacturers approved to deliver rapid testing in the country.

It is believed that marketing restrictions and lengthy approval processes on rapid test kits discouraged manufacturers from applying for TGA approval.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a press conference on COVID-19
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a press conference on COVID-19 (Getty)

Brisbane-based manufacturer Ellume has sent hundreds of thousands of rapid home tests to the United States after being granted an emergency use permit by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in December 2020.

Asked why the proposals were not followed, the Ministry of Health responded with a statement saying: “The documents were reviewed by the Ministry of Health and advice from the Australian Health Protection and Principal Committee (AHPPC) and their subcommittees was obtained.

The AHPPC issued a statement on asymptomatic testing on 14 May 2020 (now archived), noting that large-scale, non-targeted testing for active infection with SARS-CoV-2 in asymptomatic humans in Australia’s (then) low prevalence environment was not recommended. and was not considered an effective or efficient approach to disease transmission identification. “

Asked why he thinks his proposal was rejected, Prof. Wood said: “Our medical fraternity, especially at that end, is very, very conservative.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended criticism of his government’s inability to secure enough supplies of rapid antigen tests, saying “many of these comments have been made with hindsight, not foresight”.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has also emphasized that the government would have prepared in different ways “if we could all have predicted what Omicron variant would look like “.

Prof. Wood said these excuses are not related, as new variants of COVID-19 would always emerge.

“There was nothing unusual about a microbiology student graduating with a PhD, that’s what you learn about pandemics … all these things are just classic textbooks.”

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