COVID-19 game changer

COVID-19 game changer

Ministry of Health introduces rapid antigen testing next month

Senior staff reporter

Friday, September 18, 2020

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THE health ministry announced yesterday that, as of next month, rapid antigen testing for COVID-19 will be available in the public health system.

Dr Christopher Tufton, the health and wellness minister, described the introduction of the tests as “a game changer for the pace and the efficiency of testing”. He stressed that the ministry had to await the right timing and the guidance of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), despite public pressure to introduce the tests sooner.

Speaking at the ministry's weekly virtual press briefing last night, director of laboratory services, Dr Michelle Hamilton said the kits are being introduced under guidance from PAHO, through an arrangement with global biodiagnostic firm, SD Biosensor.

The test kits, 80,000 of which should arrive in the island in another four weeks, will yield results in as little as half an hour, she said. However, antigen testing will only be available to people who have symptoms of the disease and must be ordered through their physician.

Dr Hamilton explained that “both of these tests give a very good result...[but] there is a difference in the sensitivity of the test, in that the antigen test is not as sensitive, which means that some of the cases that are negative could be false negatives”. She noted, however, that allowances would be made by repeating negative tests on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine.

The pilot will be rolled out in major hospitals and health centres and at the National Public Health Laboratory. Full implementation will include all hospitals, all major health centres, private labs, and labs in private hospitals.

Dr Hamilton stressed that the antigen kits will not replace PCR testing, which remains the gold standard for COVID-19 testing, but will be used to broaden the base for testing and reduce turnaround time for results.

Both tests, she said, detect infection, the difference being that the PCR test detects the genetic material of the virus while the antigen test detects proteins produced by the virus as it replicates.

Explaining the significance of antigen testing being only for people with symptoms, she said, “In symptomatic patients the ability to detect the presence of COVID-19 is highest. If it is used for asymptomatic patients it will have decreased ability to detect — roughly about 20 per cent of those would not be detected,” she stated.

During the weeks leading up to the arrival of the kits, health personnel are to receive theoretical training ahead of practical application. The test is also being touted as cost-effective and suitable for public-private partnership.

There have been consistent calls from various sectors, most recently by hoteliers, for the use of rapid antigen testing alongside PCR testing.

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