Australian doctors warn coronavirus testing compromised by failure to stockpile key chemical reagent

Doctors are warning that Australia’s failure to stockpile a commonly-used chemical reagent needed for coronavirus testing is contributing to shortages in the midst of the current pandemic.

The Australian Medical Association has warned a common reagent that is critical in the testing of coronavirus is facing supply issues because of the huge demand on Australian laboratories due to Covid-19.

Chemical reagents are used to extract nucleic acids from swabs taken from potential coronavirus patients, a critical step in confirming the presence of the virus. The reagent is not specific to coronavirus and is used in testing for a range of illnesses, including other types of influenza, the AMA said.

What are the common symptoms of Covid-19?

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches and pains 

When should I get tested?

The current national advice is to get tested if you:

  • are experiencing the symptoms above, and
  • have travelled overseas recently (within the past 14 days); or
  • have been in close contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19

Australia currently has “very variable stocking” of the reagent across different states and territories, Chris Moy, the AMA’s president in South Australia, said.

That’s left some jurisdictions facing supply issues but others well-prepared, he said.

South Australia was singled out for praise. It has spent the past decade “carefully” stockpiling a supply of the reagent, something Moy said was a complex and difficult task.

“You need this reagent to do the test,” Moy told the Guardian, speaking from a clinic where he is testing potential coronavirus patients. “There’s probably two issues at the moment. Firstly, there has been very variable stocking by the state pathology services of this.”

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“The other reason why there is a bit of a burn-through … there is still a proportion of the ‘worried well’ getting tested. The problem with that is the criteria for testing keeps changing.”

Moy said the problem again showed the need for the establishment of a nationally-coordinated disease control authority, similar to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

“It just shows again that dealing with a pandemic which is a state thing can’t rely on jurisdictional inconsistencies, and also that dealing with a pandemic is a practical not a theoretical issue. That’s why the AMA has been calling for a centre for disease control to coordinate responses.”

Australia is hardly alone in facing strain on its supply of reagent.

Last week, the head of the US Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, said he was “aware of pressure in the supply system on the reagents” needed in coronavirus testing. The agency was working 24/7 to address the problem, he said, and was seeking to supply laboratories with reagent alternatives.

Grattan Institute health program director Stephen Duckett, a former secretary of the health department, said Australian officials had know for weeks that testing supply issues would arise. He said more should have been done to forecast the demand for testing.

“Were there estimates of demand?” he asked.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided it is used correctly.

Justin McCurry

“At the moment they are still basically saying we can’t meet demand. We can only test those who have very clear symptoms.”

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The Guardian approached the Department of Health on Friday with questions about the pressures on coronavirus testing in Australia, but has not received a response.

Paul Kelly, the deputy chief medical officer, said in a press conference on Monday that there was no issue with supply of the kits themselves. He said the supply issues with “consumables” were rapidly emerging, but not surprising.

“There are some issues in relation to some of the consumables around the tests. That’s a global issue,” he said. “As you can imagine, there’s a lot of testing going on. All of those 160,000 people that we have definite diagnoses on have had at least one test.”

Moy said the government’s decision to bring private laboratories into the testing regime would help alleviate the pressure, as would stricter and more consistent criteria for who can be tested.

The New South Wales health minister, Brad Hazzard, said on Monday his state had a significant capacity for testing, compared with other jurisdictions. He urged only those who met certain criteria went for testing.

“The reason why I’m telling people that is that obviously pathology laboratories have a limited amount of capacity,” he said. “We have a very big capacity here in New South Wales compared to other states and territories, but it’s still limited. It’s finite .

“We need to make sure those likely to have the test, can have the test.”



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