mining site manager
Protecting a natural-resources economy with PCR testing

Australia's resources sector represents more than two-thirds of our country's goods exports, the majority of which come out of Western Australia (1)

With its reliance on mining, a critical worker shortage would prove dire for the state, and hence, throughout the pandemic, Western Australia (WA) remained the only state to keep its borders closed to the rest of Australia and the world.

As COVID-19 progressed in 2021, WA's strategy of 'keeping the virus out' began to pay off. Aside from their geographical isolation, WA benefited from being more economically isolated. Unlike Queensland's economy, (which relied heavily on borders being open for tourism) WA's economy continued to function independently of state migration, much like WA's economy has done for decades.

PCR at mining site critical

However, its specialised economy made WA particularly vulnerable to infection. When the highly infectious Omicron strain started to spread in WA, protecting critical workers became a major focus for WA's mining companies.

With a limited number of skilled plant operators, a fly-in, fly-out workforce, and remote mining locations (such as the Pilbara), WA mines were particularly vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease.

Fly-in workers who were asymptomatic before their travel, could unknowingly spread an infection to other critical workers and risk bringing the entire mining site to a standstill. Relying on rapid antigen tests was not appropriate for the scale and risk of these multimillion-dollar mining operations.

Lab in a tube

Remote mining sites needed the certainty of a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) diagnostic test, the so-called 'gold standard' in diagnostic screening, that large laboratory analysers could provide.

However, the concept of setting up a temporary pathology lab in a remote location made the logistical challenges immense. Experienced laboratory technicians would be required, and they would need to undergo lengthy induction programmes before they were allowed to enter a mining site. Further, large analysers would require strictly controlled laboratory conditions, which are often not possible in hot, dusty environments and small site-office locations. Regardless, large analysers were built for cities, providing high-throughput testing for large numbers of the population.

Mining site operators needed a solution that was easy to operate, had a small footprint, and provided a high-quality result. The cobas® liat analyser was the ideal technology for this situation.

The cobas liat analyser generates high-quality polymerase chain reaction (PCR) results in turnaround times of 20 minutes* or less. With a small, compact design and a footprint smaller than a laptop, it could fit on any desk surface. Its prepackaged internal control in every assay and simplified sample preparation meant no operator interpretation was required. In other words, the cobas liat analyser  could be operated by trained healthcare professional on site.

These factors and the robust nature of the cobas liat analyser meant significant efficiency for testing at remotely located mining sites. Most importantly, with high-quality polymerase chain reaction (PCR) results in turnaround times of 20 minutes* or less, the decision could be made on the spot to send infected individuals home.

Post pandemic use of the cobas® liat analyser

While the pandemic is officially declared over, COVID infection is still a risk to Australian businesses. Mandatory isolation requirements have ended, however, the infection still forces thousands of workers to stay at home for days and sometimes weeks. 

Businesses also have a duty of care to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with its inherent risk to the safety of their workers.

As well as SARS-CoV-2, the assays available for use on the cobas liat are able to positively identify a range of other reportable infections, including influenza A / B, RSV, Strep A and C. diff infection (CDI).

In 2022, after a relaxation of travel restrictions, there was a predictable spike in influenza infections due to WA's state borders finally being opened. In the same year, the federal cabinet announced in March that an extra $2.1 billion was spent on influenza preventatives, such as vaccine rollouts (2).

For mining sites and critical workers, influenza outbreaks pose a risk to staff and plant uptime similar to that posed by SARS-CoV-2. For these reasons, the cobas liat analyser remains a permanent fixture at many remote mine sites and an integral part of their occupational health and safety strategy.

COBAS and LIAT are trademarks of Roche. 

THIS PRODUCT IS NOT AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE BY THE GENERAL PUBLIC.

ALWAYS READ THE LABEL AND FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS FOR USE.

Reference 1 - https://minerals.org.au/resources/resources-lead-australias-exports-medal-tally/  [Last Accessed: 28/5/2023]

Reference 2 - https://www.health.gov.au/ministers/the-hon-greg-hunt-mp/media/21-billion-for-winter-preparedness-health-measures [Last Accessed: 28/5/2023]

* Turnaround times vary by assay.