COVID-19 research and services

ESR has been conducting research across several disciplines

Saliva testing

ESR has a research project exploring whether individuals could give a saliva sample to be tested for SARS-CoV-2. This is based on overseas work that suggests that there may be a role for a test that is more comfortable for people, that could therefore be used more frequently. A nasopharyngeal sample is currently the best practice tool for diagnosis, and this is unlikely to change with the introduction of saliva as a sample, but ESR is looking at whether saliva samples could be used in certain settings as a screening tool.

Serology tests (antibody tests)
Regarding serology tests (where we look for antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection), these are becoming more important as the pandemic progresses and we look to find those people who have had the disease but didn’t know they were ill. There are many such tests and understanding the value of various test options will be important in knowing how they can best be applied. ESR has been evaluating several tests. Additionally, we are awaiting ethics around a study in the serology area so keep your eyes peeled for this.

Flu research ties in COVID-19
We have extended our long-established flu research to include COVID-19(external link). Two large-scale and long-term studies, SHIVERS-II and WellKiwis, will expand to include testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Wastewater research
We are undertaking novel research into the testing of wastewater(external link) for the presence of SARS CoV-2. Research is progressing but the data from the collection of samples are not yet actionable and there is currently no ongoing active wastewater surveillance programme tool to detect the presence of COVID-19 cases in the community. 
We are working with the Ministry of Health to feed any intelligence from the research in an appropriate way and looking at where we can deploy our limited resources within the research. 

The overall goal long-term is for robust and reliable tools for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage, that can be used to identify any unrecognised COVID-19 infections in New Zealand. We also want to gauge how infectious it is in sewage and the persistence of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage.

As part of method validation work and following the cluster of new cases in the community, wastewater samples are now being collected from other Auckland locations, and from a range of other regions in New Zealand and being sent to ESR for analysis.

Genome sequencing
ESR was the first in New Zealand to sequence the genetic material of SARS CoV-2 from patients (external link)and whole genome sequencing has been ongoing since the first wave of the pandemic, but it has certainly taken on a more vital role for the Auckland August Cluster in providing vital pieces of the puzzle which add to the notifiable.

As of August 3, we have sequenced a total of 855 COVID-19 cases, 93 of which are related to Auckland August outbreak.

We are currently looking into what investment would best enhance the team’s efforts going forward. Further, increasing our resilience to provide this intelligence is a key factor in this.

For a Q & A on genome sequencing - click here

Serological (blood) tests
ESR is evaluating serological (blood) tests that could identify whether people have immunity to COVID-19.

Research collaborations
We are collaborating with other organisations to research how we can use novel data sources and machine learning(external link) to predict further outbreaks of COVID-19.

Image: CDC Atlanta