Miners step up COVID-19 measures

MINERS are playing an increasingly important role in COVID-19 testing and treatment by boosting the country’s testing capability and funding clinical trials for a vaccine.

Andrew Forrest and federal health minister Greg Hunt

Andrew Forrest and federal health minister Greg Hunt

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As part of the national effort to suppress the virus and increase testing and tracing to slowly ease the restrictions an extra 10 million COVID-19 test kits have been secured thanks to Fortescue Metals Group chairman Dr Andrew Forrest's Minderoo Foundation.

The Thermo Fisher and Tecan-branded COVID-19 test kits and equipment come from the Beijing Genomic Institute and will be used by private pathology providers including Sonic Healthcare and Healius to expand testing in every state and territory and increase total testing between now and the end of the year almost 20-fold.

BGI chairman Wang Jian said Australia and Forrest supported China in its hour of need so it was simply doing the same

"Based on the strength of the relationship, we were able to protect supply chains for this extremely rare equipment and have Andrew deliver it straight to Australia," he said.

"I've been calling the 10 million tests the Twiggy Tests and I hope they will be used to clear Australia of this virus."

The test kits came as part of Minderoo's drive to secure COVID-19 testing labs for Australia from China, which arrived on 10 chartered flights during April.

One third of the 10 million COVID-19 tests have arrived in Australia so far, with the kits to be used at 11 pathology labs around the country as part of the Minderoo and government-led security through accelerated testing initiative.

The STAT initiative will increase by more than three-fold total daily COVID-19 testing capability across the country.

Head of Minderoo's COVID-19 response Dr Steve Burnell said the STAT lab solution used a highly specialised process to rapidly detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 viral ribonucleic acid in a patient's swab sample.

"The reality is, there will likely be additional waves of this pandemic, and different biologic threats in the future, that may be just as contagious and even more lethal," he said.

"This testing infrastructure will help protect Australia not just from COVID-19 but will remain a valuable asset protecting Australia from other pandemics well into the future."

Australian Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said expansion of COVID-19 testing was an important part of the enhanced public health response.

"Testing is necessary to detect and control outbreaks, if physical distancing, measures are to be relaxed," he said.

"The expanded testing program will have an initial strong focus on testing anyone who has acute respiratory symptoms - coughs, colds, sore throat - widespread testing of contacts of COVID-19 cases and selected cohort studies, such as frontline health and aged care workers."

Federal health minister Greg Hunt said the approach to testing in Australia, which already had one of the highest rates per capita in the world, had been a vital part of the success in flattening the infection curve.

"As we move to the next stage of our recovery, further expanding testing capacity and case ascertainment is one of the three critical steps we can take to protect Australians, avoid further spikes in community transmission and assist in easing restrictions," Hunt said.

"The work of the Minderoo Foundation in helping to secure these high-quality PCR tests and equipment helps protect the Australian public, diversifies supply lines and provides us with a fundamental testing capacity for COVID-19."

Forrest said in times of national emergency and crisis all parts of society had to come together in the national interest.

"By connecting people from across the commercial, research and health care sectors, we've been able to accelerate the set-up of new equipment, to help pull Australia out of its economic deep freeze," he said.

BHP has also committed $3 million for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19, with funds going to two research institutions in Australia.

Through its charitable-arm, BHP is giving $2 million to the University of Queensland to develop a potential vaccine that is in clinical development; and $1 million to the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne for its Australasian COVID-19 trial (ASCOT).

UQ vice-chancellor and president professor Peter Hoj said the generous commitment from the BHP Foundation would fast-track the development of a promising COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was undergoing preclinical safety and efficacy studies.

Hoj said the vaccine candidate had potential to be manufactured at scale and made available around the world.

The Doherty Institute's ASCOT trial will test the effectiveness and safety of potential COVID-19 treatment drugs in patients already hospitalised with the virus, to try and prevent them deteriorating to the point they need to be on a ventilator in intensive care.

The trial is to be rolled out in more than 80 hospitals in Australia and New Zealand.

Doherty Institute director professor Sharon Lewin said that as a new disease there currently were no treatment options for COVID-19.

"The aim of ASCOT is to test the safety and efficacy of existing drugs in a controlled environment in the hope we can use them to save lives," she said.

BHP Foundation CEO James Ensor said the devastating global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic required a collective response from governments, businesses and the global philanthropic sector.

"As a global community we have to come together," he said.

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