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Expat uses hospital links to help Ireland

By Wang Mingjie in London | China Daily | Updated: 2020-05-21 09:51

Editor's note: This news column showcases stories from around the world that bring a touch of positivity to the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

Paul O'Brien. [Photo provided to China Daily]

When most European nations were competing with each other for supplies in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, an Irishman put his China connections to work and enabled his country to roll out rapid testing for the virus.

Paul O'Brien, a China-based regulatory expert with a background in clinical medicine, has been feted by the Irish media as being "the right man in the right place at the right time" for the country.

At a time when Ireland was struggling with its testing capacity and had attempted every possible contact in Europe to source the new medical equipment without success, the country's ability to respond to the coronavirus crisis was severely affected.

Luckily, thanks to O'Brien's links with the Second Affiliated Hospital at Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou, where he interned after his medical studies, he was able to broker a medical equipment procurement deal, which allows 100,000 tests a week to be carried out in Ireland.

The procurement included 19 extraction machines to extract nucleic acid from a swab, as well as 100,000 extraction kits, with each able to perform 60 extractions.

An electronic sign reading 'keep your distance' is seen on an empty street following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dublin, Ireland, May 8, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

Recalling the Irish government's early response to the COVID-19 outbreak, O'Brien said: "We did not have a lot of extracting reagent and it got so bad that a lot of testing clinics were shut down and we had to change the testing criteria in Ireland. It got to the stage when we were sending off our tests to Germany.

"Without that connection with the Second Affiliated Hospital, we wouldn't have been able to do it. There were just no other options for us," he said.

The whole process happened within two weeks, with queries on equipment standard compatibility and price negotiation being done over one weekend. "We were able to find out it was compatible to the Irish system and had the exact same performance as the Abbott test, known as the gold standard," O'Brien said.

The supplies were then sent to an airplane in Beijing operated by the Irish airline Aer Lingus, which had never flown to China before. But due to the special circumstances, the planning and approvals for a new route were done in a week instead of the six months it would take in normal times.

"Based on this new deal, we are able to test and get the results to the people in 24 hours," O'Brien said. "It's pointless to try to solve the system without testing, so it was a massive change for us."

The pandemic has prompted a worldwide demand for medical provisions. With China resuming its industrial production, the country is able to export the medical gear and testing kits for countries in need, although some countries have raised concerns regarding quality.

Speaking from his own experience as well as professional expertise, O'Brien defended China's stance, saying a lot of journalists reporting on the topic have no understanding on the issues. With no technical background in place, they are likely to mix the standards issue with the quality issue, he said.

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