Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Rapid tests could be widely used over summer holidays

By Nita Blake-Persen of RNZ

Slip, slop, slap and swab could be the new summer checklist as the Government prepares to roll out rapid Covid tests in holiday hot spots.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing – which involves a nasal swab and is processed in a laboratory – has been a mainstay of New Zealand’s Covid defence, but rapid antigen tests – which return results in 15 minutes and are much less invasive – could be about to boost our toolkit.

The Government has been trialling the tests with 29 businesses, and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) said the pilot was proving to be a success.

MBIE Te Whakatairanga deputy chief executive Suzanne Stew thanked the businesses involved.

“We are incredibly grateful to these businesses for being so candid with their learnings and feedback, to ensure that we have been able to iron out any issues and fix any problems before this programme is eventually expanded for other businesses.”

She said 16,281 rapid antigen tests had been taken during the course of the trial, with nine positive results and 65 invalid tests. The positive results were followed up with PCR tests.

Transport company Mainfreight has been taking part in the trial. Managing director Don Braid said the tests were a useful first response and indication of whether PCR testing was needed.

Rapid tests had been taken at most of the company’s major sites, including 80 which were taken out within an hour at its Auckland site yesterday.

“It’s relatively easy to do, everybody is on a text messaging system, they do the test and have a result back within 15 minutes.

“We haven’t had any positive tests, we haven’t had any invalid tests and I think we’ve done in excess of 600 or 700 tests over the last couple of weeks,” he said.

Braid said Mainfreight used rapid tests extensively in its overseas operations, and while they do not replace PCR testing, they gave staff confidence that they are safe.

He gave the example of Denmark, where travelling staff took a rapid test every day for five days in the lead up to their crossing the border back into the country, when they also took a PCR test.

Braid said the tests gave staff confidence about working with others and wants them rolled out as quickly as possible here.

“Take the import ban away and allow the importation of good quality antigen testing units and have them made available particularly for business, and then ultimately they should be available at local pharmacies.”

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed New Zealand would be using rapid antigen tests more widely.

“We’re going to see situations where rapid antigen testing is more widely used as part of those pre-departure testing requirements and is more likely to be more widely available at airports, or near to airports, for people to satisfy those pre-departure testing requirements.

“That will mean people are being tested much more closely to their departure than potentially 72 hours before they leave.”

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said three antigen tests had been approved for import and use in New Zealand but other companies were applying to be used here too.

But he said plenty of tests had been ordered for New Zealanders to use.

“We’re looking at the use of those more widely across New Zealand, particularly over the summer period to compliment PCR testing… particularly in some holiday spots, there will be much larger numbers of people there,” he said.

University of Otago microbiologist and infectious disease expert Professor David Murdoch last month said New Zealand could have been better prepared for various Covid testing methods, and today said he was keen to see rapid tests used to support the current PCR set-up.

“In general if we have a system where the laboratories are able to give a good turn around time with PCR, absolutely that’s the test to use. But the rapid antigen tests really come into their own when that is a challenge, when we have difficulty with a quick turnaround or accessibility – a place that doesn’t have access to PCR.”

That could include remote campgrounds and festivals or other mass gatherings.

Murdoch noted that antigen tests are not as accurate as PCR – which will detect the virus at a much lower level – but said they did pick up the virus when people tended to be more infectious.

He said if somebody has Covid, the ability to confirm that via a PCR test is around 90 per cent, but with rapid antigen tests that drops to a variable rate of between 50 and 80 per cent, depending on the test.

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