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Australia & SI tackle COVID together with a boost to testing capability and laboratory facilities

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Australian High Commissioner Dr Lachlan Strahan and Jean Moselen, scientist from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

Australia has delivered a new GeneXpert machine and 400 testing cartridges to assist the National Referral Hospital’s (NRH) molecular laboratory to diagnose COVID-19.

This machine can return COVID-19 test results within an hour. It can also test four times the number of samples at any one-time compared to previous GeneXpert machines in use, providing rapid detection of the COVID-19 virus. This quick turn-around will enable laboratory and health care staff to identify patients who are COVID-19 positive with the result then quickly available to treating clinicians.

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Better diagnostic capability is critical as we all continue to combat the spread of the virus. Working with the World Health Organisation, Australia supplied a PCR machine and GeneXpert cartridges in 2020 and over 100,000 rapid antigen tests in early 2022. The new GeneXpert machine, ordered from the United States, further extends Solomon Islands’ testing capability.

The machine was set up by staff in the molecular laboratory, with help from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) in Australia. Two Australian scientists from the Institute, Professor Patrick Reading and Jean Moselen, worked closely with local laboratory and health personnel to provide technical assistance and build capacity during the COVID-19 outbreak response in Solomon Islands.  

Providing technical assistance and testing equipment is part of Australia’s commitment to strengthening laboratory and diagnostic capacity in Solomon Islands. Australia is also working with the Ministry of Health and Medical Services to renovate and extend the molecular laboratory in the coming months.

In a small ceremony on 21 March, Australian High Commissioner Dr Lachlan Strahan and Minister for Health and Medical Services Dr Culwick Togamana, Permanent Secretary Pauline McNeil and Dr George Wilson Malefoasi, CEO of the National Referral Hospital marked the handover of the GeneXpert machine. Dr Strahan and Dr Togamana also presented the staff at the laboratory with certificates to acknowledge their training in PCR techniques to detect COVID-19 in clinical samples.

“Staff in the molecular laboratory are highly competent at the techniques needed to detect COVID-19 and I am pleased to award these certificates in recognition of their skills” Ms Moselen said. The Doherty Institute will continue working remotely with staff in the molecular laboratory.

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L-R – Andrew Darcy, Molecular Laboratory technician, First Secretary Health, Kathleen Bombell, Human Development Counsellor, Mika Kontiainen, Permanent Secretary Pauline McNeil, Australian High Commissioner Dr Lachlan Strahan, Minister for Health and Medical Services Dr Culwick Togamana and Alfred Dofai, Director for Laboratory.

Health Minister Hon. Dr Culwick Togamana highlighted the importance of additional GeneXpert machine. ‘The support is timely as one of our main focus of COVID testing at this stage of our response is with COVID-19 patients admitted to the hospital and for such group lab test is more appropriate, as it provides detailed data to assist clinicians in managing COVID-19 patients. Additionally, since the virus is transmitting more in the rural communities, the installation of the new 16 module GeneXpert machine that is capable of performing 32 tests per hour has freed up 3 other machines that have now been deployed to Guadalcanal, Makira and Temotu provinces for COVID-19 testing for clinical patients, suspected cases, and ongoing mass community testing in the provinces. Therefore, the additional GeneXpert is greatly appreciated’, explained Dr Togamana.

Dr Togamana also acknowledged the technical support from Doherty Institute in Australia in further building capacity of local lab technicians for COVID-19 testing of clinical sample, whilst highlighting that they will transfer knowledge and skills gained to their provincial counterparts to ensure consistency of performance across all laboratories. Thank you indeed.

The Health Minister praised the unwavering and steadfast, partnership and friendship of the Australian Government to the government and people of Solomon Islands. ‘All the support we have received will go a long way in preserving the health and lives of our people especially at this difficult time of COVID-19 community transmission’, said Dr Togamana.

Australian High Commissioner Dr Lachlan Strahan said, “Australia is absolutely committed to working with Solomon Islands to support its COVID-19 Response Plan. We have worked in lock step with the Solomon Islands Government since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020 and our support will continue to be unwavering as we face this virus together.”

“Australia’s assistance isn’t just one dimensional either. We’re committed to supporting Solomon Islands tackle COVID-19 with the appropriate infrastructure such as laboratories, medical equipment and supplies, logistics assistance and importantly, technical assistance and people like the scientists from the Doherty Institute and our AUSMAT colleagues. Australia’s COVID-19 support is wholistic and enduring. We’re here for the long haul,” said Dr Strahan.      

Australia’s longstanding health partnership is supporting Solomon Islands to respond to COVID-19 while continuing to assist with long-term health system strengthening.

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