Australia accelerates COVID-19 testing after securing 10 million kits

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia plans to expand screening for the coronavirus after securing 10 million more test kits on Wednesday, a measure officials said is key to sustaining low transmission rates and allowing restrictions on social movement to be eased.

FILE PHOTO: Masked church volunteers organise food donations before distributing them to those in need, an approved essential service during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at One1Seven evangelical Anglican church in Sydney, Australia, April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Australia has credited a partial lockdown and testing with bringing the rate of new infections down to below 1%. Home to 25.7 million people, it has recorded about 6,700 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and 88 deaths.

Authorities plan to use the new supply to expand testing this week to include people without systems, ramping up from around 500,000 tests conducted over the past month.

“These 10 million tests will allow our state and territory public health units to be able to test right through 2020, to provide us with the capacity to contain, suppress and defeat the virus,” Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said increased testing is a prerequisite to reopening restaurants and pubs, lifting travel restrictions and extending the limits on the size of weddings and funerals.

Some states and territories have begun to ease restrictions independently, including allowing slightly larger public gatherings and reopening beaches. But the federal government said there will not be any changes before a review on May 11.

The kits were secured from China by Fortescue Metals Group founder Andrew Forrest, who sold them to the government at cost price of A$320 million ($209.18 million).

In New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she wants to increased testing rates by 50% and urged care workers and anyone with the “slightest sniffle” to get tested.

State authorities will also expand testing of health workers and employees at aged care homes following an outbreak at a facility in the west of Sydney.

Eleven elderly people have died from COVID-19 at Newmarch House care home after contracting the virus from an employee. Anglicare, the company in charge of the home, said on Wednesday that more deaths are likely.

Victoria, the second most populous state, plans to open mobile units to test people in their homes, offices and while out shopping.

Morrison said that 2.8 million Australians had downloaded a contact tracing app on their mobile phone, the second of his conditions for relaxing movement curbs.

Morrison has said at least 40% of Australians will need to download the app for it to be an effective tool, though civil liberty activists have said it invades their privacy.

“If you want to return to a more liberated economy and society, it is important that we get increased numbers of downloads,” Morrison said, adding only state health officials would have access to the data.

The app, which is based on Singapore’s TraceTogether software and uses Bluetooth signals to log when people have been close to one another, is meant to help medics trace people potentially exposed to infections.

A similar app is expected to be rolled out across Britain within next few weeks, the developer said on Tuesday.

($1 = 1.5298 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Stephen Coates and Jane Wardell

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