Image: Dr Philippe Boeuf (left); Driver Ioni Pidian and the 97kgs of samples at the crack of dawn at Rabaul airport. The journey begins…
A 97kg load of 4888 frozen HMHB samples was transported safely from our Kokopo lab in East New Britain, PNG to Burnet HQ in Melbourne in a pre-Christmas dash by a Burnet researcher - despite a few hitches!
Just as Santa was preparing to circle the globe on Christmas Eve, Burnet researcher Dr Philippe Boeuf was also facing issues with transportation, preserving precious frozen samples and a looming deadline.
The Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB) team in Kokopo, PNG, had been taking biological samples from pregnant women for over 18 months in research to combat the nation’s high maternal and infant mortality rates. It was essential these samples remain frozen, but an earthquake had damaged the main laboratory freezer.
Samples were promptly moved to a back up freezer. But the timing was everything. The pending Christmas season meant limited staff to monitor power outages in an unstable environment. The decision was made to bring all 4,888 frozen samples to the controlled storage at Burnet Institute in Melbourne.
The big challenge was to keep them frozen on the long journey from Kokopo to Melbourne despite the possibility that a flight was cancelled or cargo off-loaded in the busy festive season.
“Temperatures in PNG are around 35 degrees,“ Kokopo laboratory coordinator, Dr Boeuf said. “And the samples could be sitting on the airport tarmac for a while, waiting to board.”
The initial plan was simple: pack the samples in Kokopo, fly with them to Port Moresby and hand them over to the local agent of LabCabs, an Australian courier company specialised in cold chain solutions for biological samples that would transport the samples from Port Moresby to Melbourne.
Dr Boeuf organised for specialised insulated containers to be shipped from Australia to Kokopo, where he, lab manager Ruth Fidelis and lab staff spent a whole day packing samples into ice packs. The next day at 4am the samples’ journey started when Dr Boeuf and team driver Ioni Pidian drove to nearby Rabaul airport.
With great support from Air Niugini, the 97 kilograms of samples and Dr Boeuf, were put on the flight to Port Moresby. The first hurdle had been jumped.
However, the local courier who was to take responsibility for transporting the samples from Port Moresby to Brisbane had dropped out of contact. Repeated calls, text messages and emails failed to elicit any response.
Time for Plan B: Dr Boeuf decided to transport the samples on a passenger plane to Brisbane. But firstly, he had to assure the airline and the pilot the samples were not dangerous, and get clearance to check in the samples. The clock was ticking … and the samples had been packed to stay frozen to Port Moresby, not Brisbane!
Dr Boeuf was poised to carry out plan C – contact our local partners in Port Moresby to source and lend a suitable freezer, when the airline gave the nod.
“I called our travel agent and said I needed to be on the next flight to Brisbane, with all the excess luggage we could get, for 97kg of samples.” That was arranged within minutes.
“It was very stressful, the whole way. If I still had hair, I would have lost it,” Dr Boeuf said. “It was such a relief to see the samples being uploaded onto the plane to Brisbane”.
The second hurdle had been jumped.
Twelve hours after leaving Kokopo, Dr Boeuf and the samples landed in Brisbane where they were cleared by Australian quarantine officers who had rarely seen such a large number of biological samples carried by a passenger on a domestic flight. Once the samples were cleared by AQUIS and left arrivals, Labcabs couriers quickly poured dry ice over them.
The samples were safe!
Labcabs took over and promptly repacked the samples in dry ice before flying them to Melbourne the same night. The next morning, the samples arrived at Burnet’s Melbourne office. Dr Boeuf placed the samples into the minus 20 degree, highly controlled storage.
“The samples were initially frozen upright but transported lying down, so the big test was whether they were still in the bottom of the tube, indicating they hadn’t melted,” Dr Boeuf said.
He was too nervous to do the test himself and deferred to Professor James Beeson, Head of the Centre for Biomedical Research and principal investigator of the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies. To everyone’s immense relief, he found the samples completely uncompromised.
Dr Boeuf paid tribute to a true team effort that included HMHB colleague Dr Michelle Scoullar; lab staff in Kokopo, transport company Labcabs, staff at Rabaul airport and our travel agent.
“It really matters that the samples are safe. First and foremost, it is our duty to the women who participated in the HMHB study, to their babies, to the study staff, to the donors and to the researchers who have planned experimental work on those samples, that we make sure they are, and remain, uncompromised.” Dr Boeuf said.