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Government to send antigen tests to fully vaccinated close contacts

Antigen tests – or ‘lateral flow’ tests – can give a result within 10-15 minutes, but are not as accurate as PCR tests.

A sample being placed into a SARS-CoV-2 antigen test.
A sample being placed into a SARS-CoV-2 antigen test.
Image: Shutterstock/nito

THE GOVERNMENT IS to increase the use of antigen tests, advising that they be used by fully vaccinated people who are deemed to be close contacts of a confirmed Covid-19 case, but who have no symptoms.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin confirmed this afternoon that antigen tests will have an “enhanced role” as part of a series of new Covid-19 measures announced today, and that tests will be sent to symptomless fully vaccinated close contacts of confirmed cases.

“A more wider use of antigen tests is certainly on the cards,” the Taoiseach said in response to a question from The Journal.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that there would be more information on how exactly this would work “very soon”.

PCR tests are the type of test used to confirm that someone has Covid-19 – this type of testing is done in a laboratory, and can take up to 48 hours to give a result.

Antigen tests – or ‘lateral flow’ tests – give a result quicker than a PCR test, usually within 10-15 minutes, but are not as accurate – particularly for those without symptoms.

‘Damning’ approach to antigen tests

NPHET has recommended to Government that the HSE should implement a programme of Covid-19 antigen testing, and get a PCR confirmation in the event of positive cases.

It also recommended that the Rapid Testing Expert Advisory Group be requested to provide a view on voluntary self-testing by asymptomatic individuals who plan to engage in high-risk activities, such as going to nightclubs; and that the Group be requested to examine rapid testing as a part of the Covid-19 pass for those for whom, on medical grounds, it is not been possible to get fully vaccinated.

Cabinet met early this morning, and agreed on this series of measures, including that antigen tests should be sent to vaccinated asymptomatic people who are considered close contacts of positive cases.

Opposition TD and Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín criticised the Government’s approach to antigen testing, which he said was used across Europe as a means of stopping Covid spreading.

“It saves lives, ill-health, allows business to properly function and is non-discriminatory. Yet this government has resisted it. This is damning and it shows that complete failure of the government to protect society”.

“Antigen testing is still aspirational in today’s announcement. It states that the HSE ‘should’ implement a programme of Covid-19 antigen testing. This only applies to people who are identified as fully vaccinated close contacts. This is a very limited number people”.

Currently, antigen testing is being piloted in seven college campuses this autumn: students test themselves twice a week at home, and can upload their results online using the HSE Report Antigen Result website.

Antigen testing has also been used at high-risk sites, such as meat processing plants.

In England, each household can order one pack of antigen tests a day, and each pack contains seven antigen tests.

Antigen testing: will we, won’t we?

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said previously he would like to see more widespread use of antigen testing as Ireland reopens, but NPHET have shied away from recommending that so far, arguing that the tests are not as good as PCR tests. 

“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,” Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said at a NPHET briefing in July.

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But there have been increased calls in recent weeks for antigen testing to be used more widely to help suppress the current increase in Covid-19 cases, including by teachers’ unions to help reduce the number of Covid-19 cases in schools.

Professor Mary Horgan, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and a member of the Rapid Testing Expert Advisory Group assembled to look at the use of rapid antigen testing to reopen Irish society, argued that antigen tests pick up highly infectious cases quicker:

“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.”

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