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COVID-19: Is technology New Zealand's silver bullet?

Technology will provide the silver bullet that New Zealand needs to manage COVID-19, according to NZTech chief executive Graeme Muller.
 
Muller says the resurgent outbreak of COVID in the community has served as a reminder that Kiwis will be having to manage the impacts of this disease for some time.

"Whether it is faster contact tracing, easier tests or even a vaccination, it is likely that technology and biotechnology, both strengths of New Zealand, will provide the solutions needed to allow the economy to continue operating while the pandemic continues," Muller explains.

"While tightening up our borders and increased testing will help to limit the chance of future outbreaks, fast and accurate contact tracing is the key tool for getting ahead of the virus when a new cluster emerges in the community," he says.

Muller says the initial uptake of the Government's COVID tracing app was "extremely low" and very few businesses were displaying the QR code. 

"But the recent Auckland outbreak has seen the use of the app dramatically increase as we all now understand the value in collecting this information to protect ourselves and the communities we live in," he says.

"It's likely that the need for contact tracing and even health passports will become commonplace over the next several years as we continue to deal with COVID and plan for future pandemics."

While the use of a manual app may respond to an immediate need, Muller says it is essential that more automation is deployed to reduce the risk of future spread.

"A simple starting point for more automation has to be the introduction of the option for Bluetooth enabled contact tracing," he says.

"Apple and Google have joined forces to create a standard that has allowed them to put Bluetooth contact tracing on almost every phone in the world, free of charge, in people's next phone update.

"The Ministry of Health has indicated that they are considering this technology and potentially connecting it to the NZ COVID tracer app to further enhance contact tracing," Muller adds.

"Hopefully, our Government will be looking to integrate this global operating system-based solution into COVID tracking in New Zealand. 

"There is so much public interest in this. I'm surprised the Government has not published a roadmap for the planned evolution for their COVID tracking app."

Muller says the other technology where New Zealand has a strength is biotechnology.

"We are already seeing New Zealand scientists developing possible solutions such as the recently announced work by ESR on simple, fast saliva tests," he explains.

The Government has invested $10 million in supporting local vaccine research with New Zealand's leading universities and biotechnology research institutes coming together in a national Vaccine Alliance to collaborate on the assessment, development and production of vaccines for COVID and future pandemics.

"The New Zealand technology sector continues to thrive and support the New Zealand economy during the global pandemic," says Muller.

"Software companies are still able to operate and export, high tech manufacturers like Fisher & Paykel Healthcare are producing critical hi-tech products for the world and the biotech sector is designing future solutions.

"Unofficially, the tech sector is no doubt now New Zealand;s second largest export industry, employing over 100,000 Kiwis and thousands of other people around the world."