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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Shutterstock File photo of an antigen test.
exit wave

Virologist: 'Free mass antigen testing could help break this wave of Covid'

Both case numbers and the number of people requiring hospital treatment with the virus are rising, but no action has yet been taken by government.

A VIROLOGIST HAS said the government could respond to this latest wave of Covid-19 by implementing free mass antigen testing across the population.

The number of people in hospital with the virus has reached levels not seen since early 2021 during the Alpha wave, although roughly half are in hospital for other reasons.

A smaller percentage of overall case numbers are falling seriously ill due to a high level of population immunity from vaccines and prior infection, but the number of people requiring intensive care is now starting to rise.

The government has indicated that no new restrictions will be imposed, but also has yet to move to tackle this current wave of the virus through additional protections and mitigation measures such as new advice on mask wearing or increased testing.

No new public health advice to do so has been received from the chief medical officer, the Tánaiste said today, but a new Covid advisory group to replace NPHET will be set up ‘imminently’.

Case numbers yesterday were among the highest-ever recorded (7,729 cases confirmed with PCR and 15,973 registered positive antigen test results) but is thought to be an underestimation due to current testing advice.

As of this morning, 1,395 people are in hospital with Covid (up from 1,081 a week ago, of whom 55 are receiving intensive care (up from 44 a week ago).

Dr Gerald Barry, assistant professor of virology at UCD, told The Journal’s coronavius newsletter that Ireland is currently not testing enough people for the virus.

Free PCR testing is currently available for anyone with a positive antigen test who requires a recovery cert, but is primarily targeted at a number of high-risk groups such as people over 55 who are not boosted and those with a weak immune system.

There is currently no public health requirement for most people to test themselves if they have symptoms of the virus. Free HSE antigen tests are limited to healthcare workers and those who need to make a social welfare claim.

Antigen tests are available from supermarkets and pharmacies but can cost in the region of €3 a test if bought individually.

Antigen tests are quicker, cheaper and easier to administer than PCR tests, but can struggle to pick up the early stages of an infection.

214Antigen Tests Sasko Lazarov / Antigen tests for sale in a shop in Dublin city centre. Sasko Lazarov / /

Barry said: “People are talking about how [authorities] should switch back on PCR testing, but when you think about the cost of that and the time it would take to ramp it up, I would much prefer them to flood the population with free antigen tests.

It would be much more cost-effective and has been proven to help break chains of transmission in a population.

He added that the public should get back into the habit of routine testing during this period of very high transmission.

“That’s hard now because it’s expensive to do that on a regular basis, which is why I’d love to see it for free because it impacts financially on people to ask them to do something like that,” he said.

We need to accept the fact that we maybe do need to have a mentality of ‘okay, we’re having a wave now of infection, we need to switch back on all the mitigations we used to do’, rather than getting the hump about it and saying ‘I thought we were gotten rid of all this, we don’t need to do it again’.
Waves like this are probably not going to be an unusual or rare thing. You would hope not obviously but I think there is a very real possibility of waves like this coming on a regular basis.

The World Health Organisation’s special envoy on Covid-19, David Nabarro, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that waves like this could be expected every roughly four months.

Barry added that more sustainable approaches are needed in addition to responses to surges, such as an incentive for businesses to implement good ventilation practices, and continued adherence to mask-wearing whenever you are encountering people in a crowded space.

Also speaking to The Journal’s coronavirus newsletter, Monaghan GP Dr Illona Duffy said that people need to be doubly cautious of the symptoms of Covid-19 right now as it is in such high circulation.


As the BA.2 variant of Omicron became dominant, Duffy said she noticed an increasing number of people with Covid-19 presenting with vomiting, diarrhoea, aches, and marked nasal/sinus congestion, and highlighted that some people appeared to be taking longer to recover than earlier during the Omicron wave.

The primary symptoms of Covid-19 remain fever, a dry cough, and fatigue, but data from England indicates that following the arrival of Omicron, the most common additional symptoms include a runny nose, headache, sneezing, and a sore throat.

Duffy also advised the public to not rely on a negative antigen test if they are symptomatic.

The government has ruled out the imposition of further restrictions but has not yet indicated if additional protections or other measures will be used to take the heat out of the current ‘exit wave’ of Covid.

“It’s a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said on Sunday.

We’re monitoring the situation very tightly, and really encouraging people who haven’t had their booster to have that because we know that the immunity from the virus wears off.

And speaking today, Varadkar said he viewed the long-term solution to managing future waves of Covid is through vaccination, staying at home if you have Covid, getting a test if you have symptoms, and other measures such as ventilation and wearing a mask where appropriate. 

The government still receives public health advice from the Office of the Chief Medical Officer, but a new advisory group to replace the now-defunct NPHET is due to be set up ‘imminently’, the Tánaiste added.

The Journal’s coronavirus newsletter cuts through the noise and misinformation to give you clear, accessible facts about the coronavirus, Ireland’s fight to contain it, as well as developments further afield. 

This is your one-stop-shop for Covid news during a time when it can be hard or overwhelming to try and stay up to date with the latest.

You can read the latest full edition in full here, sign up to receive the newsletter here or below.

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