- 2 years ago
25 August 2021
Last Friday, Roche Diagnostics Australia Managing Director Allison Rossiter was holding a staff meeting when a team member noted she had 18 missed calls on her phone. From Woolworths to Kelloggs and KFC, all of a sudden companies were inundating Roche with questions about its Rapid Antigen Tests.
An announcement from NSW Premier Gladys Berijiklian that workers leaving local government areas marked as areas of concern would need to be fully vaccinated or have a test had sparked the rush. At less than $10 each and requiring a simple nasal swap to deliver a positive or negative result in less than 20 minutes, companies were keen to factor them into their workplace strategies.
“It was going through the roof because everybody was thinking, what do we do? What is a Rapid? How do we make it work?” says Rossiter.
“I then called an emergency meeting because this is not our usual business; this is alien for us. We don’t have Kelloggs and KFC and Woollies calling. We don’t work with these companies normally, and we were having to pivot and operate differently.”
For Rossiter, it has been a long and difficult journey to wean Australia off its sole reliance on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and implement a faster testing regime.
Roche Diagnostics was one of the first companies to bring high-automation PCR tests into Australia (read about it here), the company initially struggling to keep up with demand.
“But then it settled down and we were relatively normal in terms of our internal borders,” says Rossiter. “We were talking about Rapids but there was a view there were not enough cases here. And then the second wave came.”
A blunt instrument against the Delta variant, PCR test results taking up to 48 hours to deliver. It only takes one positive person to pop out to the shops while waiting for a result to start an outbreak, whereas a Rapid test can deliver a result in 20 minutes.
“We’ve had the Rapid Antigen available for probably about a year in Australia but Australia was never interested,” Rossiter says, adding the tests initially got a bad name due to some poor quality products. Knowing she needed to change attitudes and fast, Rossiter quickly pulled together a white paper with all the evidence available.
“It used Roche as an example but it wasn’t Roche-specific; it detailed the benefits of using Rapid Antigens,” she said. “I sent it out to all the politicians, State and Federal, and said, we need to reassess this.”
The gamechanger was a decision by NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant some five weeks ago that 300 medical students undergo a Rapid Antigen Test prior to sitting their exam, followed by a push from the construction sector.
“We’ve been talking to construction companies for about a year but they were never allowed to use the Rapid Antigens because it was not approved here. Once the TGA approved our test, we said now we want to work with you, we want to roll it out. Now we have lots of industries using our Rapids.”
Rapids in the workplace
Roche Diagnostics recently won a Federal Government contract to supply its Rapid Antigen Tests for Aged Care facilities nationally – an order for 1.5 million tests. Yet because the 60,000 boxes did not have TGA-required packaging, Rossiter’s team had to manually label every box.
“In the beginning, the TGA was extremely strict and is now easing up a bit to make it easier for everyone to use,” she said.
“We’re so cautious as a country, we’re so scared of making a mistake, which is understandable when it comes to health but in times like this, we have to look at other countries.
“We were the best in the world but the tense there is past; we were the best but we didn’t bring the vaccines in quick enough, for whatever reason, and now how do we deal with that? We’ve got to do use every tool in our arsenal to make us come through this as unscathed as possible.”
Roche Diagnostics is also working with the Doherty Institute on post-market testing of the Rapids but Rossiter is convinced they will play an essential role in Australia living with Covid.
“Most countries across the world, Singapore, UK, Portugal, you name it, they are doing it,” she says. “I called my parents in the UK last night and my dad had a bit of a cough so decided to do a Rapid Covid test. They have them at home. ”
Rossiter says the next challenge for her team is bringing the tests into Australia, with space on aircraft in high demand. The company is considering chartering a flight and filling it will tests but she has no idea whether Australia will want one or ten million.
Having worked with influenza tests for years, Rossiter believes Australia has been in denial about Covid, believing it could eradicate the virus when it was inevitable that the world would need to live with it, just as it does with influenza. She says all companies should now be considering ordering sufficient Rapid Antigen Tests for their staff to be tested regularly, particularly those who can’t work from home.
“What I’d like is for patient self-testing to be approved and then we will give all our staff tests to do at home. That would be my dream but we’ve got to wait until the TGA approves that. Rapids are cost-effective but it’s about frequency – it’s the most important thing. You do it every morning before you start work and if you get a positive, then go for a PCR.”
I first spoke with Rossiter in March when her team won a top award at the Swiss Australian Business Awards. At the time, she described the team as her “heroes” for what they had achieved in Covid. Five months later, she tears up when talking about what they have done.
“I get goosebumps from head to my toe – I couldn’t be prouder of my team,” she says. “They’re still my heroes today, but they’re heroes for different reasons: the resilience, the grit, the pivoting, the never giving up, for looking out for each other, for the camaraderie and for keeping each other safe. What they’ve done is beyond words – I can’t thank them enough.”