Rapid COVID-19 tests should be the next tool used in the fight against coronavirus, according to health experts and politicians — including some within the Coalition’s own ranks — who argue the tests could help open borders and protect frontline health workers.
- Federal Liberal and Labor MPs are among those calling for rapid COVID-19 tests to be introduced for frontline workers
- Epidemiologists say there are accurate tests that could help people return to work sooner
- Pathologists warn with the highly transmissible Delta variant, tests should be as sensitive and accurate as possible
Federal and state governments have come under increased pressure to introduce so-called rapid antigen testing nationally across high-risk settings like aged-care homes, schools, hospital wards, hotel quarantine and airports.
Federal government backbencher and paediatrician Katie Allen is among a group of Coalition MPs calling for the tests to be used more widely.
She argued they could be used alongside the ‘gold standard’ polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, often involving a nose and throat swab, to which most Australians have become accustomed.
“People are loathe to get tested because they think the results are going to take a long time, or they can go out and do other things without realising they need to self-isolate,” Dr Allen told the ABC.
Some rapid tests ’99 per cent accurate’, epidemiologist says
The rapid antigen tests are on-the-spot screening tests that detect proteins in the virus and, as the name suggests, deliver results within minutes.
Like a home pregnancy test, the result is reflected as a line on a paper strip, and you can administer it yourself.
They are much cheaper and faster than PCR tests and are currently used widely across Europe and the US, where they are sold in pharmacies and supermarkets.
In Australia, the tests have been used at the Howard Springs quarantine facility and are currently being trialled at some aged-care facilities in New South Wales.
But there has been resistance to using them more widely as they are considered less reliable than the PCR tests and can lead to false negative and positive results.
Different brands of tests vary in accuracy, with the national medical regulator banning some kits for sale in the Australian market, saying they’re too unreliable.
But epidemiologist Mary Louise McLaws said some brands of the rapid test were more than 99 per cent accurate, and using them every day increased their effectiveness.
She wants them rolled out across businesses, hospitals, schools and at state borders.
“They only take 10 to 15 minutes and they’re a fraction of the price,” Professor McLaws said.
“You’ve got real-time results and then you could go onto the work floor knowing that you won’t place any of your mates at work at risk of COVID, and you won’t get COVID.”
Federal Labor MP and paediatrician Mike Freelander on Monday wrote to the federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard, calling on them to adopt rapid testing in a range of places, like workplaces and schools.
“Such a system would have bipartisan support and would be an important tool in management of the pandemic,” he wrote.
He told the ABC using the tests in conjunction with PCR would help return people to work and schools.
“It doesn’t replace PCR, it doesn’t replace social distancing, it doesn’t replace the lockdowns, but it is a way of making things a bit easier for a whole range of people,” he said.
Authorities wary positive cases won’t come forward
The Health Department noted the government was currently trialling the use of the rapid antigen tests in aged-care facilities in New South Wales to identify whether they could be used in outbreaks.
But it said the tests were not suitable when there were low rates of COVID-19 in the community, because of the risk of false positive and negative results.
It also said the tests were not encouraged for home use because the technology misses early infections and there was no way of ensuring someone who tested positive would tell authorities.
“Notification of COVID infections is incredibly important for contact tracers and outbreak management in Australia,” a spokesperson said.
“There is a risk that people could be motivated to conceal a positive COVID self-test result (e.g. if they were about to go on holiday or were worried about losing income)”
On Saturday, NSW deputy chief health officer Jeremy McAnulty said PCR tests were “tried and true” but that authorities were considering alternatives.
“We are reviewing a place for all these different tests and emerging technologies as they come about,” Dr McAnulty said.
“We don’t want to cross anything out that might be useful.”
Pathologists argue rapid tests aren’t as accurate
Chair of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia, Lyn Waring, said more evidence was needed before Australia could confidently roll out rapid antigen testing.
She said rapid antigen tests were subjective and less accurate than PCR tests and not suitable in countries where there are low COVID-19 case numbers.
“In our situation here right now and particularly with the Delta variant, which is a lot more transmissible and is often causing asymptomatic infections when they’re infectious, we need to have the most sensitive test we can get our hands on,” Dr Waring said.
Pathology companies receive a Medicare subsidy of up to $85 for each PCR test, which are far more expensive than the rapid versions.
That has led some rapid antigen test manufacturers to argue pathologists stand to gain financially if PCR tests continue to dominate the Australian market.
But Dr Waring rebuffed those claims.
“The College itself is a voluntary organisation so it’s not gaining anything through the testing, and a lot of the testing is done through public health laboratories,” she said.
“We’re more concerned about the quality of the tests and the quality of pathology.”