Rapid testing urgently needed, says expert

Australia’s economic recovery could be compromised by further waves of COVID-19 if rapid testing is not utilised, according to a pathology expert.  

The federal budget released on Tuesday saw the government put $1.7 billion over two years towards the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca and University of Queensland/CSL Limited vaccines.

But Pathology Technology Australia chief executive officer Dean Whiting said the key to getting people back to work safely and the economy running smoothly was adding rapid COVID antigen testing to the country’s existing testing regimen. 

“The budget is pinning its hat on a vaccine and to me that is a warning sign, because when you listen to almost all the experts, a vaccine could be a long way away,” Mr Whiting told AAP. 

“So between now and the middle of next year, we’re very vulnerable to second and third-wave infections and that would be devastating to the economy.

“A clear opportunity for spending would have been in a massive roll-out of rapid antigen testing across high-risk and essential businesses to keep workers safe and the economy running smoothly.”

Mr Whiting, who heads the peak industry body representing manufacturers and suppliers of testing technology, said while PCR tests should remain the “gold standard”, they are expensive and can take up to 48 hours to deliver a result.

He says they should be used in combination with rapid tests, which can deliver a result with 95 per cent accuracy in just 15 minutes, at about a third of the price. 

“The big advantage is that you get a result in real-time and you’re able then to ask that person to isolate and to send a sample for PCR to validate that they are a positive,” Mr Whiting said. 

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has approved six rapid antigen tests – which require a swab from the back of the nose or the throat – in Australia. 

These are manufactured by Rapid Diagnostics, Access Bio Inc, Becton Dickinson, Bionote Inc, Quidel Corporation and SD Biosensor.

Mr Whiting said the “most logical”places to immediately roll these tests out would be the aged care and health care sectors, as well as other essential and high-risk workplaces like hospitality and construction, where people could be tested daily on site. 

He pointed to United States President Donald Trump’s successful recovery from COVID-19 as an example of the strength of frequent antigen testing and rapid action. 

The 74-year-old’s infection was picked up by a rapid test before he was treated with Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, as well as an eight-gram infusion of monoclonal antibodies. 

He was also put on dexamethasone, a steroid that is proven, thanks to the UK’s Recovery trial, to benefit Covid patients who are having breathing difficulties.

“If you get people pre-symptomatic then the anti-viral drugs like Remdesivir have the greatest chance of success,” Mr Whiting said. 

“They got the anti-viral in Trump very early on before the virus had the chance to multiply aggressively.”

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee will consider the status of rapid antigen tests more broadly and prepare advice for the government on their use, a spokesman for federal health minister Greg Hunt told AAP on Friday. 

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