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NZ Animal Health Laboratory Deploys Robots for Improved Animal Disease Testing

The Biosecurity New Zealand Animal Health Laboratory will be able to carry out faster and improved tests for animal disease with the new antibody testing robot. It is a NZ$580,000, 750kg high-throughput diagnostic robot. It will increase testing accuracy and consistency during future biosecurity responses, according to a press release.

The technology is the first of its kind in the country. The Mycoplasma Bovis outbreak provided useful insights into how laboratories could increase capacity during a response. It highlighted the need for automation, the Animal Health Laboratory Manager, Joseph O’Keefe, explained. “If an exotic disease such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) arrived here, our people could need to test some 3,000 up to 7,000 samples a day.”

By automating this process, results will be delivered faster, benefiting farmers, and improving the welfare of people and the animals involved as well. The technology was manufactured in Germany and is designed to test up to 7,000 samples per day for antibodies to FMD and other exotic diseases.

O’Keefe noted that the robot is self-sufficient and does not require frequent attention or intervention. This frees up animal health laboratory staff for other testing and provides stability throughout intense response periods. The robot can even run tests overnight without any human supervision. Testing delays can affect the economy as antibody testing is essential for maintaining the access and security of product exports to New Zealand’s international markets. If there is an exotic disease outbreak in New Zealand’s animals, automation will allow the country to recover faster.

The robot was assembled over a week, with each component being brought safely into the biosecure containment area. After assembly, the team thoroughly tested and calibrated the robot to ensure the tests were as accurate as the current manual process. Now that this has been confirmed, the robot is being used for regular diagnostic testing.

The machine achieves its efficiency by moving test plates around. Each plate can contain approximately 90 samples and the robot manages up to 40 plates at once. Simultaneously it adds samples and different reagents, washes, and incubates the test plates. Apart from responses, the robot is used to perform antibody tests for surveillance programmes, and testing groups of animals for import or export purposes.

As borders have reopened, the number of passengers has risen, leading to an increase in penalties for travellers who fail to disclose biosecurity risks such as food, plant products, and used equipment. Biosecurity officers screened over half a million arriving passengers in December, a statement from Biosecurity New Zealand wrote. Officers issued 511 infringement notices in December, compared with 467 issued in November.

“The $400 fine provides a wakeup call for travellers who unintentionally expose New Zealand to biosecurity risk. Those who deliberately smuggle biosecurity goods face prosecution and potentially much stiffer penalties, including imprisonment,” Mike Inglis, Biosecurity New Zealand’s Northern Regional Commissioner, stated.

In December, fresh produce was the most commonly seized undeclared item (420), followed by used equipment such as hiking boots and camping gear (83) and meat products (58). These items may carry diseases or pests such as fruit flies or brown marmorated stink bugs that can cause harm.

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