Urgent need for saliva testing inquiry

News today of a leaked study into saliva testing in New Zealand raises troubling questions which can only be answered by a full and independent inquiry, says National’s Covid Response spokesperson Chris Bishop.

“It is difficult to state how shambolic the rollout of saliva testing has been in New Zealand. Over a year ago in September 2020 the Roche/Simpson report recommended that ‘all efforts should be made to introduce saliva testing as soon as possible as part of the range of testing methods being conducted’ in New Zealand.

“Despite that, it was not until January 2021 that the Government started offering saliva testing on a voluntary basis for border workers – and then only for workers in quarantine, not MIQ, facilities.

“The Ministry of Health spent much of the first half of this year casting doubt on the accuracy of saliva tests in comparison to nasal PCR tests, even though an existing private provider, Rako Science, had its test diagnostically validated by New Zealand laboratories and Associate Professor Janet Pitman, of Victoria University, said Rako’s test ‘is similar, if not better, than the nasal swab test’.

“Sir Brian Roche’s Continuous Improvement group even said to Minister Hipkins that there was a ‘strong case for adopting saliva testing as the main method for testing in New Zealand’.

“By May this year, no progress had been made on saliva testing and only 339 saliva tests had been carried out in quarantine facilities.

“Finally, the Government issued a Request for Proposals and the saliva testing rollout was due to start in June – only for it to be delayed to August 2021.

“The award of the nationwide saliva testing contract to Asia Pacific Health Group (APHG) has also raised eyebrows. Rako Science’s saliva test is diagnostically validated and it is not clear that APHG’s test is validated.

“There is a real lack of transparency over the test that APHG uses. These concerns have been aired by Kiwi scientist Dr Anne Wyllie, dubbed the ‘Spit Queen’, who invented a type of saliva test at Yale University in March 2020 which was granted emergency use authorisation by the FDA in August 2020. It is now used in 40 US states, including by sports leagues like the NBA.

“Last week, Professor Murdoch’s ‘Rapid Review of COVID-19 Testing in Aotearoa New Zealand’ said that ‘New Zealand has been slow in preparing for and adopting saliva testing’.

“It is now imperative that a full and independent inquiry be held into what has happened with saliva testing in New Zealand.”

Mr Bishop says the inquiry should cover the following:

  • Why New Zealand has been slow in adopting saliva testing including why the recommendation from the Roche/Simpson report in September 2020 was effectively ignored;
  • The science capability of the Ministry in assessing saliva testing;
  • The appropriateness of the procurement process around the awarding of the nationwide contact to APHG;
  • The diagnostic validation of saliva tests in New Zealand;
  • The accreditation process for labs running saliva tests in New Zealand; including whether and why the Ministry of Health altered the standards used by IANZ for accreditation.