Nov 19, 2020 - World

New Zealand uses science to avoid coronavirus lockdown

Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern meets supporters at Manurewa Mall on October 16, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at an Auckland mall, on the eve of her Labour Party's Oct. 17 election win — a vote of confidence in her handling of the pandemic. She lifted domestic restrictions last month after modeling showed the second Auckland outbreak was elimated. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The World Health Organization praised New Zealand on Thursday for its "unique," targeted modeling technology and rapid COVID-19 genome sequencing that's seen the country avoid a lockdown last week despite having four current community cases.

Why it matters: Coronavirus restrictions are growing across the U.S. and Europe, while NZ neighbor South Australia is under a strict lockdown. Geneticist Mike Bunce told Axios that genomic sequencing was "key" to the NZ government's decision not to reimpose restrictions beyond a mask mandate for some travel, effective Thursday.

  • Mathematical and hypothetical modeling that can predict down to the suburb where the virus might spread is helping the Health Ministry "prioritise areas for focus in the public health response to cases and clusters," said NZ Public Health Director Caroline McElnay in an emailed statement.
  • The WHO said in a statement to Axios that whole genome sequencing has been an effective approach in assisting with contact tracing in several countries. NZ using it "may not be unique but combining it with their recently developed modeling data system is, and it appears at this stage to be part of an effective approach to helping reduce and control community transmission.
"It is encouraging to see such technologies and approaches being brought together, and this may be a stimulus for the development and implementation of more effective contact tracing methods to control COVID-19."

Driving the news: The Institute of Environmental Science and Research's (ESR) rapid genomic sequencing has linked all of New Zealand's current cases to an Auckland quarantine hotel for residents newly returned from abroad.

  • Virologist Jemma Geoghegan, who leads this sequencing drive, noted to Axios in an interview that Te Pūnaha Matatini's model "can estimate how big the likely cluster might be if you detect one community case."
  • "That's revised when the genomes are linked because it's likely there are only a few transitions in cases between the worker in this community case," said the University of Otago lecturer.
  • In the most recent community case, the "genomes were identical," indicating it's limited, so Auckland could avoid a lockdown.

Worth noting: Steve Simms, who owns Birkenhead Brewing Company in Auckland said in an interview he's amazed by how fast the government is "using the scientists' knowledge to keep the economy going without major disruption" — noting his firm's takings are "way, way up on last year."

  • That's despite the government imposing one of the world's toughest lockdowns earlier this year and less severe restrictions after an August outbreak contained to Auckland, which saw his business limited to takeaway and deliveries. Government subsidies helped, Simms said.

The big picture: The government has this year provided the ESR sequencing program with NZ$600,000 (U.S.$416,000) and allocated $1.5 million to Te Pūnaha Matatini for its modeling and toward supporting other projects, including genomic work.

  • Both areas of research have been instrumental in the government's pandemic response, along with a strict border policy, managed quarantine of returning NZ travelers, who stay in hotels for two weeks, extensive testing and contact-tracing.
  • Viral PCR tests designed off the genome are "at the heart of our elimination and surveillance strategy," said Bunce, who is the Environmental Protection Authority's chief scientist and author of a report on COVID-19 genomics.

By the numbers: 60 of New Zealand's 64 COVID-19 cases are returned travelers in managed quarantine.

For the record: The mask mandate applies to all people flying in New Zealand and on public transport in Auckland, where the latest outbreak is located.

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