Since the start of the pandemic the vast majority of COVID-19 tests have been provided by laboratories using the polymerase chain reaction or PCR technique. While many laboratories process these and deliver results in 24hrs, as the testing workload has increased, particularly in the widespread lockdowns on the eastern side of the country, there have been repeated calls for more rapid testing. That call has finally been heard by the Commonwealth Government
who announced earlier this month that Rapid Antigen Tests will be funded for use in the management of COVID-19 in aged care in certain areas of Sydney.
The Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) involves taking the usual swab from the back of the throat or the mouth, performing a simple dilution and applying it to a small strip not dissimilar to a pregnancy test or the glucose strip used by diabetics. The result, either positive or negative for the COVID-19 antigen, is displayed after 10-15 minutes.
Such strips are widely used in Europe, sometimes by consumers themselves, and they have been used by companies in Australia, including the mining industry. Resistance to their wider use is because they are not as accurate as the laboratory based PCR test. although the performance of some rapid antigen tests is very close to that of PCR.
Their use has been long advocated by some epidemiologists such as Dr Mary-Louise Mclaws
who believes, for example, that the way out of lockdowns while we are still waiting for younger age groups to be double vaccinated is to use rapid antigen testing to regularly monitor key people such as truck drivers who have to move around the community and can potentially spread disease.
By using the tests to regular monitor the same individuals, such as testing every other or every two days, the supposed lack of accuracy in the tests becomes less important and with this appreciation of their value, the call to use them has become more widespread. Hence the Commonwealth’s decision to fund such testing in aged care.
Another sign of their acceptance or at least their potential value is the decision by the Therapeutics Goods Administration
(TGA) to issue guidelines on how the tests should be used. While they have approved many different rapid antigen tests for sale in Australia they indicate that for the moment, if organisations are to use them, then it must be under the supervision of a health practitioner. As experience with the testing grows then it is likely that such restrictions will be relaxed and they will be allowed to be used by individuals at home as they are in Europe.