Essential workers and a top Covid-19 expert are among a growing group calling for rapid tests to help New Zealand stay ahead of the Delta variant expansion.
Delta’s reach is unlike anything New Zealand has seen before: Covid-19 cases from the Auckland outbreak today reach 277 and contacts exceed 24,000.
That scope has put enormous pressure on New Zealand’s PCR testing capability, the only recognized test used here, with thousands of people waiting up to eight hours to get tested and then up to five days for results.
But there is hope that rapid antigen tests, which are widely used abroad, can help alleviate some of that pressure.
The tests, which can be completed at home, involve the examinee rubbing their throat or nostrils and mixing it up on a special card. It works similar to a pregnancy test and reveals a positive or negative result in about 20 minutes.
Daniel Elliott is the Chairman and CEO of the Innova Medical group, which has performed around 1 billion rapid tests in the UK over the past six months.
The UK is one of 20 countries Innova is supplying to and Elliott said it was helping its communities open up with confidence.
“They use the test to help keep schools open, to keep workplaces running, to be able to keep people working in closed environments that are critical infrastructure (police and fire).” [going].
“Now they’ve gotten enough trust with it and are starting to use it to open pubs and sporting events, concerts, things like that.”
The tests help find people when they are most contagious. Elliott said it was important to differentiate between infected and infectious people.
“While someone may have a positive PCR test, it can take 20 to 30 days until they have an infection, but it may not be contagious to other people.
“What this type of test really does is that it is really a screening test for people who have a viral load that is contagious or infectious to other people.”
The rapid response takes the pressure off testing labs and means that people are not unnecessarily isolated.
They’re relatively inexpensive, between $ 3 and $ 5, and a recent independent study involving 1.7 million kits found they were 99.8 percent accurate.
While the FDA has yet to approve them in the United States, more countries are joining and Elliott is applying for Australian approval at this time.
He said Control could bring them here in less than a week if given the green light.
“They are inexpensive and highly accurate tests that can be widely deployed in New Zealand and elsewhere, which will certainly help open up the economy.”
And as pressure mounts on New Zealand’s testing capacity, there is a growing demand to implement them here.
The Countdown supermarket chain is understood to be interested in using rapid tests to help protect its workforce, especially its distribution centers, and is reaching out to the government on how it might work.
Nurses for the elderly also support testing to keep their highly vulnerable workplaces safe.
New Zealand Aging Care Association (ACA) Nursing Leadership Group Chair Dr. Frances Hughes said that while they currently use their own surveillance tests to monitor staff, rapid antigen tests would mark a big difference.
Approximately 6,000 nurses work at the ACA and are feeling the pressure with staff waiting for the Covid-19 to clear up.
“If we could do this for our front-line healthcare workers and retrieve that evidence and have a system that retrieves it faster and gets it back to work sooner? Absolutely, that would be a great initiative.”
But Hughes cautioned that any deployment must be done with clear systems and protocols to avoid adding stress to an already struggling system.
“It means we can get it early, keep people home, give them clear direction and understanding, but we need those good communication systems.
“Who are they going to call if it’s positive and you get the answer? We can’t have more in the system with a big initiative but not understanding the bigger context,” he said.
Hughes said he supported a trial, similar to the ones taking place in New South Wales right now.
Covid-19 modeler from the University of Auckland, Shaun Hendy, said rapid antigen tests were a vital tool in our fight against covid and encouraged the government to implement them as quickly as possible.
“If we had them widely available now, I think they would be a very useful tool to combat the delta.”
Since some essential workers had already contracted the virus, Hendy said a rapid antigen test would help keep those essential services running and safer.
He said that any risk of inaccuracy was offset by the fact that the tests could be performed much more regularly than PCR tests, and he believed they could be used together as part of New Zealand’s phase-out strategy.
Public Health Director Caroline McElnay said the Health Ministry was investigating the tests.
“We have not yet provided a conclusion. Evidence is emerging around the world on that, but we continue to keep a close eye on things.”