COVID-19 testing prices chopped more than half
GOMES... Jamaica not meeting that minimum standard
Observer exposé, PSOJ call trigger response

SEVERAL COVID-19 testing facilities have slashed costs associated with testing by more than 50 per cent.

The news comes four days after the Jamaica Observer reported that the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) is facing strong criticism from personnel in the health sector over the slow pace of its COVID-19 testing programme amid allegations that it breached Government policy by allowing the importation of 100,000 test kits which had not been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The development also followed a call by the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) for affordable and wide scale availability of rapid COVID-19 testing as a key component to the country's novel coronavirus response and management.

Some facilities that actioned the call include Windsor Wellness Centre, 3D Gynaecology, Health Plus Associates, Baywest Wellness Clinic, Hospital and RK Lab, and MD Link.

Effective Monday, November 8, 2021, the cost of COVID-19 antigen tests at Windsor Wellness Centre will be reduced by more than 50 per cent to $4,900 and the cost of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests by 14 per cent to $18,000. Cost to do the antigen test at 3D Gynaecology will be $5,500. Health Plus will charge $5,000 down from $8,000 for an antigen test, while Baywest will charge $5,000 for an antigen test and $15,000 for the PCR test.

Last Tuesday, the Observer reported Dr Carolyn Gomes, a member of the board of the Global Fund for HTB and Malaria and a civil society representative on the Access to COVID Tools Accelerator, as saying that since last year the Global Fund and a partner organisation have been working to develop and distribute testing kits for COVID-19 to make sure that they were up to standard and pre-qualified by the WHO.

“Some money was raised to make these tests available to low-income, lower-middle-income countries across the world, and upper-middle-income countries that were beneficiaries of Global Fund grants. Since last year I have been trying to encourage our Government to make greater use of the diagnostic tests that were developed, which are the antigen rapid diagnostic tests (RDT) for COVID-19, with very little success,” Dr Gomes said.

“More recently, the WHO has come out very, very strongly stating that we should be testing one person per thousand population per day. If we say Jamaica's population is 2.8 million people, then we should be testing 2,800 people per day in order to control and get a handle on our COVID-19 epidemic,” argued Gomes.

She noted that Jamaica was not meeting that minimum standard and pointed out that the WHO has recommended that the RDT antigen tests should be used widely to determine the state of the epidemic and to test everyone who is potentially positive for COVID-19.

“But we are not doing that in this country. We have limited severely the access of the population to COVID-19 testing to those who have money and can afford to pay anywhere between US$20 and US$50, sometimes more,” said Gomes.

She also pointed out that the access to an antigen test is also limited to private entities unless the person has symptoms and goes to a public facility.

The Observer expose created a firestorm of criticism of the Government and the health ministry and last Thursday the PSOJ issued a call for more affordable testing, arguing that readily available rapid tests will help to get our society back to operating normally by minimising the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The statement by the PSOJ added that the testing ecosystem has been criticised for being expensive and inaccessible to a wide cross section of Jamaicans, as the average antigen test from a supplier ranges from US$5.50 to US$11 to the labs or health-care system in Jamaica, but the consumer pays approximately $7,500 to be tested.

The PSOJ said in other countries with decentralised testing, antigen testing costs are significantly lower, for example Germany where rapid tests are sold directly to the consumer for under US$1 each and India where they are approximately US$3.50 each.

The PSOJ also called for an expansion in the number of doctors testing and a seamless process for doctors to be accredited for point-of-care antigen testing by the Jamaica National Agency for Accreditation (JANAAC) and the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW); approval of more types of antigen testing; self-administered testing and zero rate tax on COVID-19 antigen tests.

Rapid antigen test allows people to learn their status in minutes and with this timely knowledge can mitigate the spread of the virus.

Therefore, the ecosystem must be improved to allow for the importation of a variety of tests at affordable price points to be undertaken by doctors, nurses, workplaces, and individuals. “We need to shift the power in the hands of the people to complement efforts of the Government and private labs.”

In September, the Sunday Observer published an article titled 'COVID Moneymaker Testing a big cash cow as some benefit from racket' which explored the high costs of testing, the unregulated testing sector and unapproved testing facilities also offering tests to the public.

At the time the PSOJ had reaffirmed its position that there needs to be a robust and expanded testing environment, arguing that it would provide more options for individuals and businesses, be more affordable and give a more accurate reflection of the country's COVID-19 status in order to better manage the outbreak. The organisation also said it would aid in reducing informality in the testing ecosystem and the time for implementation of appropriate public health measures.

Meanwhile, head of Windsor Wellness Centre Dr Alfred Dawes said he has noted the concern of citizens, the private sector and the Government of Jamaica about the cost of private COVID-19 testing. Dr Dawes said Windsor Wellness Centre has always shared those concerns and has been working to reduce test costs.

“With the streamlining of our business processes, boosted significantly by our just inked contractual agreement with the provider of one of the newest Ministry of Health and Wellness-approved COVID-19 antigen tests, we are finally able to reduce significantly the cost of tests to our customers,” he said. “Customers can continue to expect the usual high quality WWC efficiency, satisfaction and accuracy of our tests while accessing our service. Our ability to effect such a significant reduction in testing costs is grounded in the MOHW allowing the importation of additional brands of World Health Organization-approved antigen tests. With the entrants of new suppliers in the market, Jamaicans are seeing the benefits of competition in their access to health care.”

Dr Dawes added that, “We, however, remain deeply concerned that the decreased suppliers' test costs may not benefit the average consumer nationwide, due to the continued restrictive policies in the approval of testing providers. Competition in suppliers has enabled Windsor Wellness Centre to reduce testing costs to our customer base. Competition between testing providers will finally make COVID-19 testing available to the wider market. Let us all work together to make positive changes for the benefit of all Jamaicans.”

One doctor, who asked not to be named, said while he has reduced the costs, the kits are not cheap. He said a kit box of 25 tests is expensive, costing almost $65,000, hence the high cost of tests. The doctor is hoping the market change will see a decrease in the wholesale price of the kits.

Further, Dr Che Bowen, head of MDLink, said his entity strives to provide affordable access to healthcare to everyone, and in keeping with this mission, while moving towards living with COVID-19, the lab believes it is necessary to keep prices as low as possible to serve the public.

DAWES... Windsor hasbeen working to reducetest costs
BOWEN... it is necessary to keep prices as low aspossible
BY KIMBERLEY HIBBERT Senior staff reporter

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