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Expert group reviewing if antigen tests can be used in schools and workplaces

The health minister said from this week, significant volumes of antigen tests are being deployed across healthcare settings.
Jan 28th 2021, 12:34 PM 16,918 21

HEALTH MINISTER STEPHEN Donnelly has said an independent expert group has been set up to assess if antigen testing can be used in schools, workplaces and even the Dáil.

Speaking in the Convention Centre in Dublin, Donnelly said he is looking forward to getting the view of the experts as to whether antigen testing can be used in settings other than healthcare.

The health minister said from this week, significant volumes of antigen tests are being deployed across healthcare settings.

Last week, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) said they were looking at using antigen testing more widely for symptomatic cases.

NPHET has endorsed the use of antigen tests as a supplement to PCR testing in certain situations, and particularly when the availability of PCR tests may be limited.

The European Commission has recently signed a contract for the supply of rapid antigen tests for up to 20 million antigen tests for donation to the Member States.

Antigen tests from the EU

The HSE confirmed to TheJournal.ie that Ireland will receive its first allocation of these antigen test in the first quarter of 2021, with the details around the shipment and order lead times being worked on this week.

“Proposal for their use in symptomatic patients within defined  contexts has been made and decisions regarding deployment are being finalised with NPHET.

“We have already used antigen tests in hospitals, food sector and outbreak settings as part of the validation project.

“To date we have run in the region of 4,000 antigen tests. We expect to release more of the tests to the acute hospital system over the coming weeks. These will be used as a tool alongside our extensive PCR rapid and batch testing systems in hospitals,” said the HSE.

While a HIQA report found that antigen tests to date show reduced diagnostic accuracy as compared with the PCR test, the WHO suggests that these rapid tests should only be used when PCR testing is unavailable, or where prolonged turnaround times preclude clinical utility.

The HSE said their intended use is in symptomatic patients in the early stages of infection, where samples are taken and tests conducted by trained by health professionals. 

“There is limited performance data currently available for the use of antigen tests in asymptomatic populations. The ECDC and WHO recommend that any country considering implementing antigen testing should conduct appropriate clinical validation of the tests for use in that setting. 

“As a result the HSE established a working group who are verifying and validating a range of tests available in the marketplace, together with the options and impacts arising from the deployment of those tests,” said the HSE.

‘Bite the bullet’

Professor Luke O’Neill told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny that now is the time for the Irish Government to “bite the bullet” and introduce widespread antigen testing.

As society reopens, he said antigen tests will be a useful weapon, adding that the evidence for antigen testing is getting stronger and stronger.

WHO’s Special Envoy on  Covid-19 David Nabarro said the tests can benefit the economy, the health service and mass gatherings.

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On the matter of the AztraZeneca, Donnelly told the Dáil that there’s no certainty how many AstraZeneca doses will arrive here after mid-March.

“Last night the company was still not in a position to provide clarity on deliveries after mid-March,” he said.

The target of getting 700,000 people vaccinated by March was called into question today when the minister said Ireland was largely relying on AstraZeneca delivering 600,000 doses – which the company is not committing to at the moment.

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Christina Finn

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