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Health Minister says Professor Philip Nolan's tweet comparing antigen tests to snake oil was 'not helpful'

Stephen Donnelly said antigen testing is a part of Government policy when it comes to reopening society.

An expert group recommended that consideration be given to roll out the tests to employers, community groups, schools, colleges, sporting organisations and the public.
An expert group recommended that consideration be given to roll out the tests to employers, community groups, schools, colleges, sporting organisations and the public.

THE HEALTH MINISTER has said a tweet sent by NPHET’s modelling expert Professor Philip Nolan comparing antigen tests to snake oil was an unhelpful comment. 

Speaking to reporters after Cabinet today, Stephen Donnelly said antigen testing is a part of Government policy when it comes to reopening society. 

Responding to a tweet by supermarket chain Lidl, which was advertising the sale of its new antigen tests alongside barbecue goods such as sausages, Nolan said: 

“Can I get some snake oil with that? It makes for a great salad dressing with a pinch of salt and something acerbic. Stay safe when socialising outdoors over the next few weeks. Small numbers, distance, masks. These antigen tests will not keep you safe.”

“I don’t think it was a helpful comment, if I’m honest. It is Government policy.

“I have great respect for Prof Nolan and I have no doubt that his concern was around people using them in the wrong way,” Donnelly said today.

“I think it is entirely possible that anybody just going into a supermarket and picking up a pack without maybe having had a conversation about the fact that if you get a negative result it really doesn’t necessarily mean you’re negative at all that it could create a certain risk.

“But I think they are one part of the tool kit we have and I think as the technology gets better and better and the specificity and sensitivity of the tests gets better and better and the usability of them as well gets better and better, I think there is a good chance that as the year progresses and probably through next year they will have a more important role to play,” said the minister. 

The tweet has not gone down well with those in government circles who believe such remarks undermine the government’s decision on antigen testing, and muddies the waters for the public.

The Government’s chief science adviser has backed the use of rapid tests to complement other health measures. 

Expert group recommends antigen test use

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

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

The group also included Professor Mary Horgan, President of Royal College of Physicians in Ireland and Professor Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology, Trinity College Dublin.

The report recommended that consideration be given to roll out the tests to employers, community groups, schools, colleges, sporting organisations and the public.

The group also recommended that that authorities “educate and engage the public with respect to all aspects of rapid tests”.

The tests will be used in Tourism Minister Catherine Martin’s trials of big sporting events and gigs this summer. The tests will also be rolled out across businesses as well as third level colleges in the autumn.

While it is understood there was no discussion around the Cabinet table today in relation to the matter, a government spokesperson denied that the government is concerned that the mixed messaging is confusing the public.

Senior sources state that this is not the first time that debates and remarks on antigen testing have been made online and on Twitter by some public health experts, which they viewed as pushing back against the Ferguson report. 

One source said the debate around antigen testing has been had, an expert group was convened to assess the tests and a decision was reached and accepted by government.

A government spokesperson said the Taoiseach has been clear that there is a role for antigen testing, acknowledging that there has been a “split” in opinion by some public health experts.

He said they are “entitled to their view” adding that “all opinions are valued”.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan sounded a warning about using these kits this week following Lidl’s advert. He said antigen tests are less reliable than PCR tests. 

While Government acknowledges that antigen testing is an additional measure in combating Covid-19, it is not a substitute for following public health advice, Holohan said. 

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Unlike PCR, antigen tests work more effectively if a person is symptomatic but are not as effective at identifying pre-symptomatic cases. 

An antigen test won’t confirm if a person without symptoms has Covid-19 as these tests rely on a high viral load to identify presence of Covid-19. 

According to the HSE, antigen tests are about 80% accurate if a person is symptomatic but only about 50%-60% accurate if a person has no symptoms and self-administers an antigen test.

If a person is symptomatic and receives a negative antigen test result the advice is that they should also get a PCR test, which can also detect early infection in a person. 

When pointed out that in the UK, the government has an awareness campaign for the public on the use of antigen testing, a government spokesperson said “that will surely be considered” as and when antigen tests are used in certain settings.

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