Ministry health

Covid-19: the Ministry of Health remains discreet on the strategy of rapid antigen testing

Health experts say rapid antigenic tests (RATs) will be an essential tool for the management of Omicron in New Zealand, but the government has not yet determined how they will be used.

The health ministry has confirmed it has 3.5 million tests nationwide and 20 million on order, which will arrive in batches over the next six months.

Don Street Pharmacy technician Dana Millaine shows a rapid antigen test currently available to unvaccinated travelers if they are traveling with Air New Zealand or the Interislander.

Kavinda Herath / Tips

Don Street Pharmacy technician Dana Millaine shows a rapid antigen test currently available to unvaccinated travelers if they are traveling with Air New Zealand or the Interislander.

“We are working to get more,” said a spokesperson.

Experts say the country could potentially need hundreds of thousands of tests to meet demand if there was a rapid acceleration of Covid-19 with the highly transmissible Omicron strain.

READ MORE:
* Covid-19: “Everyone in Australia will get Omicron,” warns NSW Premier
* Covid-19: What is the rapid antigen test and how does it work?
* Covid-19: PCR tests can identify Omicron cases quickly and inexpensively

It’s still unclear whether the tests will be publicly funded and free.

The ministry is finalizing a solution to release test results “if necessary,” a spokesperson said.

“The role of RATs in the public health response has not yet been determined, including the communication of results.”

Tests currently have limited availability. They can be used by some government departments, businesses, health and elderly care providers to be used by asymptomatic workers as a screening tool and for unvaccinated domestic air travelers.

Australia has switched to using rapid antigen tests to diagnose Covid-19, as the number of cases has exceeded the capacity of traditional PCR testing.

Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

Australia has switched to using rapid antigen tests to diagnose Covid-19, as the number of cases has exceeded the capacity of traditional PCR testing.

The ministry’s website says rapid antigen self-test tests will be available for purchase “for the general public at the start of the new year.”

The ministry did not respond when asked how many tests New Zealand would need, according to the modeling.

Public health expert Michael Baker said rapid antigen tests, which could be used at home, could confirm positive status among people with symptoms, if a rapid escalation in the number of cases made access to traditional tests available. – PCR tests – and too difficult contact tracing.

In Australia, where the number of cases fell to just under 72,000 daily cases as of Monday, some states will require a rapid negative antigen test for children to attend school.

Dr Bryan Betty, of the Royal NZ College of GPs, said New Zealand did not have enough rapid antigen tests if cases of Omicron were detected in the country today.  The health ministry says it is working to get more.

Ross Giblin / Stuff

Dr Bryan Betty, of the Royal NZ College of GPs, said New Zealand did not have enough rapid antigen tests if cases of Omicron were detected in the country today. The health ministry says it is working to get more.

The explosion of cases in Australia, driven by Omicron, has exceeded traditional PCR testing, the capacity of laboratories and hospital departments.

But the huge global demand for a limited supply of rapid antigen tests – in addition to Covid infections among transport workers – has made them difficult to access.

GP and Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Bryan Betty said if Omicron arrived in New Zealand today there wouldn’t be enough RATs.

“The more we enter the country, the better. How much do we need… it’s about saying as much as possible to cope with what is potentially to happen.

A paramedic performs a rapid antigen test at a Covid-19 testing station in Berlin, Germany.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

A paramedic performs a rapid antigen test at a Covid-19 testing station in Berlin, Germany.

Betty said RATs should be open to access, but this can start with more vulnerable or remote communities and spread to the wider community as infection rates increase.

Elderly care provider Ryman Healthcare, which operates in Australia and New Zealand, began using rapid antigen tests to screen visitors and staff across New Zealand from early December.

The company employs around 6,000 people in New Zealand.

Chief Operating Officer Cheyne Chalmers said asymptomatic visitors and staff use about one test per week and “one to two” positive cases have been detected so far.

A Tauranga staff member received a positive RAT test, but was later confirmed to be negative in a follow-up PCR test, Chalmers said.

In two large Victorian villages, the company has been using around 1,000 tests every week since the start of the Omicron outbreak.

“If we get to this kind of thing in New Zealand… it’s math, isn’t it?” We have 5 million people, and you’ll want to test people regularly.

Chalmers said tests detected several cases of Covid-19 among staff and residents of Australian villages.