Could real-time PCR testing rekindle the travel dream?
Australia has been a global success story in managing COVID-19, with ~30,000 infections and fewer than 1000 deaths. With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations at vaccine hubs across the country, increasingly the focus is turning to how to reopen the country safely.
Tourism and international education account for 5% of the Australian economy. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, tourism alone accounted for nearly 750,000 jobs at the end of 2019. These sectors have struggled during the pandemic, as have the families and businesses that depend on them.
Hope could be in sight. There have been reports of a potential air travel bubble between Singapore and Australia. Given the proximity of our two countries, and the historically close ties, a Singapore–Australia travel bubble would be welcome. Scores of Singapore and Australian residents are desperate to travel for leisure or business. Singapore is the second-largest market for Australia after New Zealand, with 6.3 million passengers on non-stop flights between Singapore and Australia in 2019.
Fast and accurate ways to clear incoming visitors are needed for such travel bubbles to work. People should not have to spend days out of a week’s trip waiting to know their PCR test results. However, authorities are understandably unwilling to let Australia’s successful management of COVID-19 be marred by an outbreak — particularly from an inaccurate COVID-19 test.
Quick, convenient and accurate testing solutions are needed. My colleagues developed the RESOLUTE 2.0, a real-time PCR kit, exactly for this purpose. It was created together with Singapore’s A*STAR and DSO Laboratories and has been approved by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). It delivers PCR accuracy in less than half the time it takes for conventional PCR and can be automated for high-throughput volumes.
Singapore’s Changi Airport is using the kit to clear incoming travellers into the country, which received 68 million passengers in 2019. Visitors receive their results within six hours while waiting in their hotel rooms — the time it takes someone to travel to the hotel, take a shower, and recharge before exploring the sights and sounds of Singapore.
Improving the speed, accuracy and accessibility of testing will be vital to reopening economies and bringing back jobs, and a test kit that allows travel hubs to leverage automation in testing several thousand passengers without the need for large spaces will be in demand.
As a business traveller who took a long-haul flight amidst the COVID-19 resurgence in December last year, I’ve experienced the benefits of having an accurate and efficient test. After returning to Singapore, I received my negative result within two hours. There was no inconvenience, and the peace of mind was assuring. This stood in stark contrast to the place I had returned from, where limited testing on arrival led to a disastrous infection rate and death toll in that country.
Given our respective track records, I believe a Singapore–Australia travel bubble can succeed and become a leading example for the world to follow. Whether it starts with Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Canberra, we will be cautious in our long march towards reopening our economies, and bringing jobs and people back into our countries again.
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