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Expert group to assess rollout of rapid antigen tests in 'various sectors'

Dr Tony Holohan said earlier this month that antigen testing is “just not as good as PCR”.

THE HEALTH MINISTER has established an expert group on rapid antigen testing which the group’s lead has said will examine how to “safely use rapid antigen testing to open our society”.

In April, an expert group tasked with assessing the use of antigen testing recommended that the self-administered Covid-19 tests should be rolled out across a number of settings.

This expert group was chaired by Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the government. 

Professor Mary Horgan, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, was a member of this group and has now been asked by the Health Minister to lead a group to progress the use of rapid antigen testing. 

A spokesperson for Stephen Donnelly said professor Horgan was “approached some weeks ago and a formal announcement outlining the group’s specific remit is expected over the coming days”.

“Minister Donnelly has made it clear that he supports the wider use of these tests and so does the government.

“They are not a replacement for PCR but an additional tool. This group will provide expert advice to facilitate the rollout of tests in various sectors.”

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s News at One, professor Horgan said the group has been asked to “look at ways of implementing how we can safely use rapid antigen testing to open our society”.

“There’s no debate about PCR tests being more sensitive, but antigen tests pick up infectious people so people who are shedding high amounts of the virus at that point in time that the test is done,” she said. 

“They’re the people that we need to detect, and really it is case detection, so that they’re identified before they leave home and go to the workplace or go to college so that they can stay at home and go into our very successful testing strategy that we have at the moment,” professor Horgan said. 

Opposition TDs who attended a briefing yesterday said the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan is still not in favour of antigen testing or PCR testing being used to gain entrance to indoor dining or indoor activities, despite other EU countries that operate such ‘corona passes’ accepting them.

Earlier this month, Dr Holohan said that antigen testing is “just not as good as PCR… It’s not a skepticism of antigen testing, it’s the absence of evidence to show that they work well enough to recommend their use”. 

Professor Horgan said the implementation of antigen testing will be “in a framework where we can provide national minimum standards” and a platform to roll out the testing in an app-based infrastructure.

She said the group will proceed with the recommendations set out in the Ferguson report and that the testing “potentially could” allow for an earlier reopening of areas such as indoor hospitality. 

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“But I think it’s important that we get that framework in place,” she said, adding that antigen testing is an “additional tool” and an “additional layer of protection”. 

“I’m hoping that once the minister announces all the terms of reference and the group that we will get to the task at hand as soon as possible, and have all the supports that the government will give us for that.”

She said the group will be “keeping a close eye on what’s happening over in the UK” in the next few weeks. 

Speaking to press this afternoon, the Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the government is “of the view that the greater use of antigen should be facilitated”.

“We already use antigen testing in meat plants, Minister Simon Harris has brought forward a pilot scheme for the application of antigen testing at third level which we believe will be a part of the return to third level because we want young people back in colleges and on campuses for the new academic year,” Martin said. 

“Minister Donnelly is keen also to roll out antigen testing in settings where it can be of use, so that work is underway.” 

The HSE already carried out antigen testing in certain healthcare settings and in meat plants. 

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