Covid can’t
stop us

On 18th March 2020 the Illumiscreen team at Labtests and other Healthscope (now APHG) laboratories across New Zealand were working alongside the Ministry of Health to establish COVID-19 testing capacity ahead of what was expected to be a pandemic that would require a well-coordinated national approach.

Labtests had to call on their expert molecular staff that are most typically work in the laboratory dedicated to Illumiscreen testing, our non-invasive prenatal testing service (NIPT). NIPT samples are sent from all over the country are processed by our laboratory in Auckland, any disruption to this service impacts expectant parents
across New Zealand.

As internal conversations were happening in the laboratory it became clear that our amazing molecular staff would have to be redeployed to set up the COVID-19 testing platforms with the capacity to process more than 2,700 tests per day at the peak and the ability to significantly increase this when surge capacity was required.

We considered whether we could continue to offer a reliable and sustainable Illumiscreen service while also managing COVID-19
testing and the ask was simply too great. We certainly did not want to introduce pressure on staff and processes that would compromise quality and so this option was quickly eliminated.

Beyond this we explored a range of alternatives including the possibility of sending all samples to the US for testing, however while we were advancing these discussions air transport between
New Zealand and US began reducing day by day. As the blood samples for NIP Tare not stable for more than five days, the inability to predict how long the samples would take to reach their destination meant that we could not progress this further.

By the 24th March we had exhausted all options and made the difficult decision to suspend the service without the ability to predict when we would be able to offer the valuable service to our customers once again.

Through the efforts of our incredible Molecular staff, Labtests reported the first run of Covid-19 tests on 31st March. By late April, as COVID-19 testing was well established, with increased staff headcount and the new molecular staff training in the process of NIPT, we were in a position to consider the earliest possibility of restarting the Illumiscreen service.

Many conversations took place over the weeks that ensued as we worked through a range of scenarios to ensure that staffing levels would be sufficient to continuously and consistently deliver both Illumiscreen testing AND Covid-19 testing, not just at the known current test levels but in the anticipated event of a volume surge.

The incredible molecular team, led by Blair Shilton, developed a number of creative solutions and with suitable options on the table we agreed on a tentative date of 28th May for the Illumiscreen service to re-commence. Before this could become a reality Blair needed to ensure engineers were available to carry out routine maintenance on the laboratory instrument used for the testing, this is essential should if an instrument has been “in hibernation” for any period of time to ensure its reliability.

Meanwhile, our Illumiscreen service specialist Karen Buchan was keeping track of the many customer enquiries asking when the service would be available. She was checking in with the molecular team on a daily basis in a desperate attempt to provide customers with answers!

We waited anxiously to hear if all the relevant technical steps could be successfully completed in time for the hopeful re-opening of the service on 28th May. Just before crunch time we received the thumbs up from Blair: everything was good to go! With that being said there was just one last step – tell our incredible NIPT customers that we’re back in business!

When Auckland entered Level 3 on 12th August the anticipated Covid-19 surge became a reality and with it the pressure on our molecular services.

Our tremendous laboratory team, set up since the country first went into lockdown, had well developed processes for delivering high volume COVID-19 testing including pooling samples, which is a process that allows nucleic acid extraction of multiple samples to be pooled together into a single sample test. Additionally the molecular team had worked diligently to complete cross training of staff which has provided the much needed flexibility and resourcing to ensure consistent and reliable delivery of both COVID-19 AND
Illumiscreen testing.

We are so grateful to our amazing customers for waiting patiently while we aimed to balance two incredibly important priorities at the same time. We are thankful to be delivering peace of mind by way of this clinically-led service to the many expectant parents
who are going through.