Australian government heralded April purchase of 10 million clinical laboratory diagnostics tests from BGI, but most of the nation’s states and territories say kits are unneeded or unable to be used by their health departments
While the United States and other nations attempt to bring the COVID-19 outbreak under control, many countries have turned to China to offset shortages of clinical laboratory SARS-CoV-2 test kits needed to diagnose the coronavirus. This did not work out well for the United Kingdom and Spain, each which purchased large volumes of COVID-19 test kits from Chinese companies in April.
Now comes news that Australia spent roughly $130 million US ($200 million AUD) in late April for COVID-19 RT-PCR tests from BGI Genomics. However, those kits are mainly going unused as Australian state governments say they are unneeded or incompatible with existing testing equipment.
This is the latest example of the problems plaguing governments worldwide as they scramble to boost SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity during the evolving pandemic.
At the start of the outbreak, a shortage of rapid molecular COVID-19 tests was compounded by reliability concerns surrounding Chinese-made testing kits. Dark Daily reported on one such fiasco in “Chinese Firm to Replace Clinical Laboratory Test Kits After Spanish Health Authorities Report Tests from China’s Shenzen Bioeasy Were Only 30% Accurate,” Apr 3, 2020.
Since then, concerns among scientists and medical professionals over the accuracy of both molecular and serological antibody tests have only increased. (See Dark Daily, “Multiple Studies Raise Questions About Reliability of Clinical Laboratory COVID-19 Diagnostic Tests,” June 29, 2020.)
The new problem is that COVID-19 testing capacity has increased so much it now exceeds demand for testing. This is true for portions of Australia and in some states in the US.
Demand for Testing in Australia Far Lower than Expected
With a population of roughly 25 million, Australia has a smaller population than Texas, which in 2020 stood at about 28 million. According to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, Australia had 7,139 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of May 27 and 103 deaths.
Australian billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, former CEO of Fortescue Metals Group, orchestrated the purchase of 10 million COVID-19 RT-PCR testing kits for Australia from BGI. He did so through his philanthropic organization, the Minderoo Foundation, with the understanding that the purchase cost would be refunded by the Australian government.
On April 28, the Australian government heralded Forrest’s purchase as a commercial coup, because it occurred in the midst of sparring between the two countries over China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and fierce international competition for COVID-19 diagnostic testing kits.
Forrest credited his personal relationship with BGI for his ability to secure the kits for Australia. “Chairman Wang [Jian] and BGI kept to their word and resisted that very clear temptation of a businessman to make a much bigger profit and maintain the integrity of my relationship, and I’m very grateful for that,” Forrest told ABC News.
However, less than a month later, The Guardian Australia reported the taxpayer-funded coronavirus testing kits Forrest brought to Australia were not being used. Instead, the test kits have been added to the country’s strategic reserve. Three of five Australian states and both territories—Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory—all told the newspaper they were not using the BGI tests. Only Victoria reported it was using the BGI tests.
“PathWest, Western Australia’s leading pathology laboratory, is not using the BGI-manufactured COVID-19 PCR testing kits,” the Western Australia Department of Health told The Guardian. “PathWest has capacity and sufficient reagent to provide testing throughout the state without the need to use these tests.”
Queensland Health echoed Western Australia’s response.
“Queensland Health does not use the BGI COVID-19 test or its operating platform,” a spokeswoman told The Guardian. “Queensland already has ample testing capacity, illustrated by the world leading figures of 137,000 COVID-19 tests since January.”
According to ABC News, Minderoo also purchased 11 testing machines, which were installed around the country. Six Chinese experts flew to Australia to help oversee the testing machines’ installation.
Testing Capacity Also Exceeds Demand in US
Increased COVID-19 testing capacity has been considered a cornerstone to fully lifting stay-at-home orders and reopening businesses, schools, and entertainment venues. But Australia is not alone in ramping up testing capacity only to have public demand not keep pace. The Washington Post reported in mid-May that in at least a dozen states COVID-19 testing capacity exceeded the number of patients lining up for testing.
Utah Department of Health spokesperson Tom Hudachko is among those questioning why people aren’t getting tested in his state, which has a 9,000-test capacity, but was conducting only 3,500 tests a day.
“Well, that’s the million-dollar question,” Hudachko told the Washington Post. “It could be simply that people don’t want to be tested. It could be that people feel like they don’t need to be tested. It could be that people are so mildly symptomatic that they’re just not concerned that having a positive lab result would actually change their course in any meaningful way.”
Meanwhile, Australia’s federal government has the interesting problem of having purchased $130 million (US) of COVID-19 test kits from a Chinese company—test kits that most of the nation’s states and territories have yet to use. Could this be a sign that many clinical laboratory scientists in Australia have their doubts about the accuracy and reliability of these Chinese-manufactured COVID-19 tests?
—Andrea Downing Peck