Salee Keeget Kebie from PNG Western Province village of Sigabaduru gets a Covid-19 vaccine.

Andrew Forrest-backed firm SpeeDx moves to avoid PNG becoming a hotspot for virus mutations



REPORTER  @jaredm_lynch

APRIL 10, 2023

A diagnostics company backed by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest is donating thousands of PCR tests to Papua New Guinea to avoid Australia’s closest neighbour becoming a hotspot for new Covid-19 variants.

Less than 5 per cent of PNG is vaccinated against Covid-19, placing the country at a greater risk of becoming a breeding ground for coronavirus mutations. The pandemic has shown how fast such variants can circulate the globe, and medical technology start-up SpeeDx is moving to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The company – which attracted $5m from Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s health technology investment fund, Tenmile, earlier this year – builds molecular tests that help doctors identify infections and the best treatment options.

It comes after the Forrests’ private investment group Tattarang launched Tenmile last August, with an initial capital allocation of $250m to spend on “unmet medical needs that support sustainable and equitable healthcare”.

Currently, PNG sends Covid-19 test samples to Australia for sequencing to identify variants of the virus – a process that can take about two weeks.

SpeeDX chief executive Colin Denver.

SpeeDx chief executive Colin Denver said the tests the company will give the country will slash this time frame, and help PNG health authorities quash outbreaks more quickly. Crucially, he said it will also assist Australian authorities in combating future strains of the virus.

“We’ve all seen how quick diagnostic testing allows for more interventions to be undertaken. I mean, if you’re looking at a two-week delay in receiving your results back by the time you get the results, usually that person is either better or they’re not, and who knows who they may have come in contact with in the interim. So I think establishing local capacity for testing is really essential,” Mr Denver said.

“Allowing for better surveillance in places like PNG will allow for Australia to better prepare for what could be coming in the hopefully distant future, but even in the not too distant future.”

The donated materials work on basic sequencing test machines and significantly increase access to Covid-19 tests, which will ensure effective test, trace, isolate, and treat strategies, as well as early identification and containment of new variants.

But SpeeDX is not only focusing on bolstering PNG’s Covid-19 response but is also assisting the country in the surveillance of influenza and sexually transmitted infections via pathology-based testing.

“We work closely with the Kirby Institute in Sydney, and we’ve worked on a number of projects, including antibiotic resistance within sexually transmitted infections,” Mr Denver said.

“There’s a huge problem with bacterial STIs in PNG at the moment. We got involved with a study where they’re looking at STIs in pregnant women because the outcomes for babies and the mothers are really, really poor. So anything we can do to try to improve those outcomes with better diagnostics and treatments, that’s where SpeeDX was definitely well aligned with what Kirby wanted to do as well.

“So it really extends much further outside of Covid to any sort of infectious disease where you’re really sort of in the dark, so to speak, with not really knowing what’s going through people or what type of different resistances they may have.”

SpeeDx was originally spun out of a diagnostics development program inside healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson in 2009. It is now headquartered in Sydney, exporting diagnostic tests to 19 countries.

Andrew Forrest has invested $5m in SpeeDx. Picture: David Swift/NCA NewsWire

The Forrest’s invested in SpeeDx as part of a $26m raising, completed in February, joining Northpond Ventures and Platinum Asset Management.

“The Minderoo Foundation, which was also with Andrew Forrest, has been very active in supporting Pacific nations with their capacity building. In terms of the Tenmile investment, it’s come at a great time for us to be able to scale up our operations both here in Australia and doing more support obviously in PNG,” Mr Denver said.

Dr Forrest said when he launched Tenmile that the fund aimed to “help early-stage companies, researchers and entrepreneurs tap into seed funding to help them when they need it most”.

He said the fund would also provide follow-on support, which is often unavailable through government or public sector funds.

“Tenmile will help Australian researchers and Australian companies, through our extensive knowledge, global networks and dedicated capital, to deliver life-changing products and medical treatments in a way that this country has not seen before,” Dr Forrest said.

Professor William Pomat, director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, said: “The introduction of variant of concern screening is new for us and provides an important tool for surveillance and responding to Covid.”

“We are grateful for SpeeDx’s support and continued commitment to working with us in future to strengthen the Covid response in PNG.”