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Innovative thinking helps industry unmask a working COVID solution

31/08/2020

Each morning about 400 construction workers at one of the Victorian government’s signature level crossing projects remove their face masks and put them into QR coded, ziplocked bags. Within six hours they receive an automated SMS telling them whether they are COVID free.

This novel, mass screening approach, the brainchild of Acciona's infrastructure boss Bede Noonan, is an example of private industry being part of the solution instead of railing against Melbourne’s lockdown and failures in government policy.

It represents a COVID mindshift where, instead of waiting at home for a vaccine, smart people across the city are imagining ways for Melburnians to safely work and travel and get on with our lives.

With workplace clusters at hospitals, aged care facilities, meatworks and logistics centres contributing heavily to Victoria’s second wave of infections, Acciona’s trial at four sites along the Frankston railway line is being closely watched by the broader construction industry, government, unions and science.

“It’s an intriguing approach that illustrates the type of novel approaches to scalable community testing that might be used as a community opens up,’’ Doherty Institute co-deputy director Mike Catton told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

“It's too early to comment on this particular approach but these are questions that are attracting a lot of attention in the scientific and medical community at the moment."

The trial began two weeks ago after Mr Noonan and his brother Andre Noonan became frustrated by the slowness and limitations of contact tracing in Victoria and concerned at how the construction industry could return to full capacity without risking further outbreaks.

Acciona Geotech, the Melbourne-based engingeering arm of a Spanish multinational, currently employs about 3000 people and will next month become one of Australia's largest infrastructure companies when it completes the acquisition of Lendlease, its consortium partner on the railway crossing project.

Mask swabbing has been previously used in America and is currently being trialled in the UK at the University of Leicester. The data and communications management system which supports the Acciona trial was developed by the Silicon Valley tech giant Salesforce, a lead player in US contact tracing.

The trial is not a new COVID test. It is a screening system designed to detect the virus at a workplace. To increase speed and reduce costs, masks are grouped five to a bag and analysed as a job lot with the same PCR test used on nasal swabs.

If a positive is returned, all five workers are told to stay at home and get tested and their site boss is immediately notified.

The benefit of mass screening is that it can pick up COVID cases in the most problematic phase of the disease; the 48 hours when a carrier is asymptomatic and highly infectious.

Mr Noonan said screening could be expanded across the construction industry to enable workers to safely move between sites. Daily screening of hospital workers could be used to prevent or respond to healthcare outbreaks. “You only have to do that for one week and you have solved the problem,’’ he said.

Mask collection and transportation is performed by Prensa, a health and environmental risk management company. Prensa chief executive Cameron Hunter said one of the biggest limitations of PCR screening – the need to do testing offsite – could soon be removed if rapid antigen tests are approved by the TGA.

These tests allow on-the-spot analysis of saliva samples inside 15 minutes, opening up the possibility of screening travellers in airports before they board a plane or healthcare workers before they start a shift.

“Until we get a vaccine it is not logical to think we are going to sit at single figure infections on a daily basis,’’ Mr Hunter said. “What we have showed with this program is that broad screening has a role in learning to live with the virus.’’

Matt McCann, a technology entrepreneur who adopted the Salesforce data system for the Acciona trial, is the boss of travel start-up Tripfuser. He believes mass COVID screening is a key to unlocking domestic and international travel.

“Let’s try to see if we can find some good faith in state government and federal governments to be able to facilitate some of these trials so we can start thinking about a world with COVID as opposed to a world where the solutions are very, very blunt.”

Pathology Technology Australia chief executive Dean Whiting said although the emerging, rapid antigen tests were less sensitive than the current PCR tests, they could prove ideal for mass screening.

Mr Noonan has discussed the trial with Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan, a member of Premier Daniel Andrews’ crisis council of cabinet, and consulted with the government’s Level Crossing Removal Authority and the CFMEU.

“It is not an attempt by the company to make a quid out of it, it’s an attempt by the company to try to assist the whole industry,’’ said CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan (no relation).

“I understand why the government went to stage four restrictions but we also can’t, at this time, see a time when COVID won’t be alive in the community and we have to try to work out how to deal with that.’’

Access the original article published in The Age here.

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