COVID-19 team

An overview of ESR's COVID-19 response team

The team is comprised of epidemiologists, health intelligence analysts, public health medicine specialists, a clinical virologist, laboratory scientists, informaticians and bioinformaticians. 

Our Medical Director, Dr Virginia Hope and our Clinical Virologist, Dr Ras Smit are members of the Ministry’s Technical Advisory Group. Dr Smit is the only registered Clinical Virologist in New Zealand.

Lauren Jelley

Lauren Jelley is a Senior Scientist in charge of the Clinical Virology Department based at ESR’s Wallaceville Science Centre. Since January 2020, Lauren and the team have been undertaking routine screening and confirmation of COVID-19 cases, now including samples from the South Pacific.

Dr Sarah Jefferies

Dr Sarah Jefferies is a Public Health Physician in the Intelligence Group at ESR, specialising in national communicable disease surveillance and outbreak response. She has been providing public health medicine expertise during the COVID-19 response including on national surveillance planning, risk assessment, epidemiological analyses and intelligence to inform decision making at national and local levels. Sarah is a clinical and research doctor originating from Scotland - a Fellow of the New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine, Master of Public Health and has a Doctor of Medicine degree on influenza research following the influenza A(H1N1) pandemic. 

Angela Brounts

Angela Brounts is the Health Science Manager at ESR.  She has operational responsibility for all the ESR’s public health laboratories in Wellington and Christchurch. Angela has been working closely with ESR laboratories to ensure they have everything they need to setup and continue SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic and confirmation testing and is providing daily reports to the NHCC on ESR’s laboratory capability. Angela has also collaborated with MFAT to set up a COVID-19 diagnostic testing service for pacific island nations.

Dr Mehnaz Adnan

Dr Adnan is a Science Leader in Data and Informatics Team within Health and Environment group at ESR. Dr Adnan is leading the work around interactive dashboards and automated data sharing during the COVID-19 response. She has a Bachelor in Computer Systems Engineering, Masters in Computer Science and a PhD in Computer Science with specialization in Health Informatics.

Dr Adnan is currently leading Social Media Observatory project, which focuses on enabling near real-time surveillance and machine learning for early prediction of Influenza like Illness. She has been part of various outbreak responses including 2016 Havelock North Campylobacter Outbreak and led the Health Research Council funded sub-study of early detection of Havelock North Outbreak using alternative data sources and machine learning.

Christina Bir

Mrs Bir is Quality Director for the Health and Environment Business Group. She was originally trained in biochemistry and has spent two decades in quality and compliance management in pharmaceutical and medical device manufacture and with ESR. She is currently based full-time with the Ministry of Health supporting the national coordination of laboratory activity, including national reporting on activity, forward planning, supporting measures to increase testing capacity and overseeing the evaluation of novel tests. She is also linked into ESR’s COVID-19 CIMS structure and provides back-up for the Laboratory Intelligence coordination function.

Andrew Crooke

Andrew is the Data and Informatics Manager at ESR. He has a background in Medical Laboratory Science and Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS). His team manage and administer a number of systems including the National disease notifications system (EpiSurv), RedCap and ESR’s LIMS as well as delivering interactive dashboards for flu, STI and notifiable disease surveillance.  In the COVID-19 response Andrew has been leading ESRs informatics function. ESR is providing interactive Dashboards, a national results repository and automating data streams of surveillance information to the Ministry of Health to enhance and inform the national response.

Dr Andrea McNeill

Dr McNeill has a PhD in Immunology and leads one of ESR’s epidemiology teams. In the COVID-19 response Andrea has been leading ESRs intelligence function.  ESR is providing intelligence updates to the Ministry of Health which incorporate international and national disease activity and emerging evidence to inform the national response and a more comprehensive risk assessments to the Ministry, which incorporates significant new information as it emerges.

Dr Virginia Hope

Dr Hope NZMN serves as Medical Director for ESR. Virginia is one of our alternate Incident Controllers and provides support for public health medicine input, liaison and laboratory response coordination.

Virginia is both a public health medicine specialist and a Fellow of the College of Medical Administrators.  She has a background in environmental public health, infectious disease surveillance and response, risk assessment and management, emergency management and response, medical leadership and governance at sector levels in Health and Biosecurity.

Dr Erasmus Smit

Dr Erasmus (Ras) Smit who joined ESR in 2018. Ras is New Zealand's only medically qualified practitioner specifically trained as a clinical virologist. He has helped to provide clinical leadership with ESR’s setup of their COVID-19 diagnostic tests. This work was done alongside laboratory staff at ESR’s Wallaceville Science Centre and staff from across the organisation.

Ras and the team continue to undertake routine screening and confirmation of COVID-19 cases while at the same time monitor the performance of the assays and explore the need to change testing strategies. Support is also provided to other diagnostic laboratories who want to set up their own testing service. Dr Smit is a member of the national Technical Advisory Group (TAG) and he works closely with the New Zealand Microbiology Network who distributes valuable information through regular communications with other testing laboratories.

Bioinformatics team

ESR’s Bioinformatics team includes scientists Dr Joep de Ligt, Matt Storey and Dr Una Ren who have been sequencing the entire genome of COVID-19 samples. ESR uploads the RNA genome of the virus to international databases for viral sequences, (NCBI & GISAID) to support the global response to COVID-19 and allow data integration and visualisation through platforms like NextStrain. Sharing of this data enables scientists across the world to study how this virus is changing and can inform drug and vaccine development. They are working with scientists across New Zealand and the globe to interpret this data and provide input into the COVID-19 response team. Determining the RNA genome provides very rich information for both surveillance, contact tracing, modelling and research purposes.