Rapid antigen testing for COVID-19 is not yet widespread across Australia, but as vaccination rates increase and more suppliers are approved by the Department of Health, the testing methods may begin to change.
While many Australians have experienced the PCR throat and nasal swab available at COVID testing sites across the country, this method takes time for laboratories to amplify and analyse the genetic material (RNA) of the virus to determine a positive result, often causing a one to two day wait.
Rapid antigen tests differ by directly placing the sample swab in a chemical solution that’s designed to quickly detect the proteins on the surface of the virus and display a result within 15 – 30 minutes.
Whilst rapid antigen testing is not as accurate as PCR testing, with some tests delivering false negative or false positive results, rapid antigen testing is a fast, cost-effective way to stay on top of COVID-19. When used in conjunction with PCR testing, it has the potential to help with risk mitigation at events in the short-term future.
Mike Hammond, Event Director at EMS Event Medical in NSW, says the approach of testing for COVID-19 on-site without the additional processing time of sending it to a lab will be beneficial to all industries.
Photo: EMS Event Medical
“The simplicity of rapid antigen testing is if it’s done frequently and correctly, it’s as good as a PCR. We’re not saying it should replace PCR, but a joint regime of PCR and rapid antigen testing is the perfect solution,” Hammond said.
EMS Event Medical has been performing rapid antigen tests across New South Wales for 18 months, starting with Opera Australia. The demand for this service has only been increasing with the business now performing 80-90 jobs per day.
“We have now in the last two weeks developed on-site PCR testing as well,” Hammond said. “If we get a positive rapid antigen test we can then run a PCR test and get the results in 15 minutes, so we don’t have to wait for the health system to take 2 or 3 days to get those results.”
Currently, this testing method is intended for the safety of businesses at higher risk of spreading the virus, such as aged care facilities in NSW, with further prohibitions in place in South Australia and Western Australia. However, there is the potential for COVID-19 testing to eventually become a requirement upon entry to Australian events, as the test becomes more widespread and approved for further supply.
“We’re [administering rapid antigen tests on] construction sites and film and tv sets and they’re relying on this to go and do their work. For the entertainment industry, we’re going to rely on this to get us back into events,” Hammond said. “If we use them jointly it could be a very accurate system.”
Photo: EMS Event Medical
Testing the attendees of festivals and larger events poses many logistical issues, but one that Hammond believes can be overcome with careful planning and appropriate numbers.
“With the upcoming festival seasons hopefully getting back on track, I think it’ll be a challenge but it can be done,” Hammond said. “The logistics of testing 8-9000 people in a short period of time will be challenging, however with the manpower you can literally do anything.”
Hammond also notes that festivals will require a different testing system than the current practice of three distinct zones comprising of a registration and waiting area, testing area and secondary results waiting area.
“We’ve got jobs coming up with festivals where we will be doing testing and the promoter is fully supportive and prepared to advertise that you will need to arrive early because you’ll need to be tested,” Hammond said.
“We’re looking at a simple dog leg queueing system where we come along and take the swabs, run the tests back in a tent and by the time these people get to the check-in and bag search, we can have the test results done. If they’re positive, pull them out and do a PCR test on them and hopefully, that would come back negative and they’d be allowed to enter the event.”
Photo: EMS Event Medical
According to the current conditions outlined by the Department of Health Therapeutic Goods Administration, COVID-19 rapid antigen tests require direct supervision by a medical practitioner. For businesses, the Department of Health has also published interim guidance for implementation to ensure appropriate management of positive results and Workplace Health and Safety.
Although self-administered testing for COVID-19 has been available overseas for some time, Australia has yet to roll out any DIY testing kits and currently, these rapid antigen tests are not permitted to be supplied for the purpose of self-testing. The Therapeutic Goods Association says that they are progressing a framework to allow the provision of these tests in the future.
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