Rapid COVID-19 test for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians

The Australian Government is investing $3.3 million to establish a rapid coronavirus (COVID-19) Remote Point of Care Testing Program for remote and rural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, which will deliver COVID-19 test results within 45 minutes instead of waiting days for a test result.

This will be a game-changing improvement for areas such as the Kimberley where receiving a test result can currently take up to 10 days.

The sites are being carefully selected in partnership with key stakeholders including services and state and territory authorities to ensure there is coverage across remote Australia, with the aim to finalise rollout by mid May, when there will be 83 testing sites in place across Indigenous communities most at risk, and most in need.

The program is being managed on behalf of the Australian Government by the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney, and the International Centre for Point of Care Testing at Flinders University.

The test, called the Xpert SARS-CoV-2 test, utilises existing point-of-care testing technology developed to rapidly test for sexually transmissible infections (STIs).

The only approved test for use by primary care services, the COVID-19 point-of-care test is as accurate as standard lab tests, and can detect COVID-19 infections at the point-of-care by using a nasal swab polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test in the early phases of the illness.

The COVID-19 test will be a game changer for areas such as the Kimberley where a test result can currently take up to 10 days.

As a critical part of this program, the existing network of Aboriginal health services with extensive experience in offering point-of-care testing for STIs in rural and remote communities will be expanded to other sites servicing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

Professor Rebecca Guy leads the Kirby Institute’s contribution to the program.

“For many rural and remote areas, the nearest laboratory currently able to conduct this test is located hundreds of kilometres away, even a plane trip in some cases. The COVID-19 point-of-care technology will bring the laboratory to the community.”

“This program will provide front line clinicians in remote communities with the tools to quickly test possible cases and their contacts. A negative result will minimise unnecessary isolation or evacuation, whereas a positive will lead to quick action to isolate and provide clinical care for the patient and to follow up with their contacts” Professor Guy said.

Online training, support and quality management for clinicians will be delivered through Flinders University’s International Centre for Point-of-Care Testing.

“We acknowledge the Australian Government’s support for this program in this crisis, and look forward to working closely with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and government-funded services to enable the new tests to be rolled out quickly,” the Centre’s Director Professor Mark Shephard said.

“Our previous work with Kirby has shown that, with sound training and quality practices in place, point-of-care testing can be conducted safely and to a high standard by health professionals in remote primary care settings.

“This important program will provide equity of access for COVID-19 testing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples living in remote communities” Professor Shephard said.

Flinders University’s International Centre for Point-of-Care Testing Director Professor Mark Shepherd.

University of Queensland Professor James Ward, a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander COVID-19 Advisory Group, has had a long involvement in the point-of-care testing program for STIs.

He said that accessible and equitable access to COVID-19 testing is critical.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are vulnerable to this new pandemic due to high rates of chronic disease, severe overcrowding and because almost 40% of our people live in remote and or outer regional areas in Australia where there are significant delays associated with getting test results to and from laboratories. These are a very welcome addition to fighting COVID-19,” he said.

“We saw in the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic that hospitalisation and ICU admission rates were ten- and five-fold higher, respectively, in the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory compared with the non-Indigenous population.

“Access to testing in communities will be an essential component of the public health response to this pandemic in Australia. This is one part of a range of critical strategies to reduce transmission in our communities” Professor Ward said.

Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, said that the program would allow local health services to respond quickly and decisively if COVID-19 was identified in their communities.

“It’s vital we do all we can to protect our rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This world-first testing response means we can continue to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting this virus,” Minister Hunt said.

“If an outbreak is detected, local health services can move quickly to protect the community and activate established evacuation procedures.

“The rollout of program will include funding for the purchase of machines, as well as the logistics, transport, training, software support, quality assurance, data reporting and communications for all 83 sites.”

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said the new testing program would help keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities safe during the pandemic.

“Sadly, Indigenous Australians are more likely to suffer from a serious illness if they contract COVID-19. There are higher rates of chronic conditions and other health issues in these communities and it can be hard to access health care,” Minister Wyatt said

“This means that an outbreak of COVID-19 in an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community has the potential to be very serious. This testing program will help protect Indigenous Australians against the virus.”

“It has been developed in close consultation with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and states and territories, which are actively involved in site selection and assessment to ensure no community is more than two to three hours’ drive from a testing facility.”

Minister for Regional Health, Mark Coulton said the program complements a range of new initiatives the Australian Government has put in place to help protect all rural and regional Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Already there are over 260 respiratory clinics across Australia,” Minister Coulton said.

“We have also rapidly expanded access to telehealth, providing more than 3.3 million services to over 2.5 million patients since mid-March 2020 and provided infection control eLearning to close to 500,000 people.

“We are urging people with chronic health conditions to not neglect their regular health care and to continue to see their GP or specialist about the management of their conditions. This is now easier and can be done from home via the phone as part of the new telehealth measures.”

In addition, the Government has invested in Community Preparedness across 110 communities to ensure all Aboriginal community clinics are ready to respond in the face of this pandemic.

This response is part of the Australian Government’s fast tracked $2.4 billion COVID-19 National Health Plan announced by the Prime Minister on 11 March 2020.

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College of Medicine and Public Health