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Dr Holohan to appear before Dáil committee to discuss approach to antigen testing

A meeting of the Oireachtas Transport committee last week heard from numerous experts advocating their use.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan
Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan
Image: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Dr Tony Holohan is to appear before an Oireachtas Committee this afternoon to discuss the use of antigen testing in relation to aviation and travel. 

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has objected to the use of the rapid tests among the general public. 

The tests are used in numerous EU countries, and the Government’s chief scientific adviser Dr Mark Ferguson has authored a report advocating their use, which has been adopted by Government.

A meeting of the Oireachtas Transport committee last week heard from numerous experts advocating their use, and ended with a call for the CMO to explain his opposition to them.

Ahead of today’s meeting, Committee Cathaoirleach Kieran O’Donnell said they welcome that Dr Holohan and his colleagues have accepted the invite to appear before the committee. 

“The committee believes that rapid antigen testing should now form part of the public health toolkit for Covid-19 alongside PCR testing. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be complimentary,” O’Donnell said. 

“Many other countries have adopted rapid antigen testing and indeed it is allowed under the EU Digital Covid Certificate, which Ireland is introducing. We must ensure that our airline industry is not put at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to the use of rapid antigen testing,” he said. 

O’Donnell noted that the committee has already recommended that a pilot antigen testing scheme is set up on a specific air route out of Ireland. He said the committee will be discussing this proposal with Dr Holohan today. 

“Along with PCR testing, rapid antigen testing has a positive role in the fight against Covid-19 by detecting and thus reducing the risk of contracting and spreading of the virus,” O’Donnell said. 

“Importantly, anything that helps to reduce the risks from the coronavirus should be utilised,” he said. 

O’Donnell said the committee “has already held a number of public hearings into the role rapid antigen testing can play in the aviation, travel and other sectors”.

“We have heard from world renowned experts, Professor Mark Ferguson, the Government’s chief scientific advisor, and Harvard Professor Michael Mina, who both gave clear scientific proof why rapid antigen testing should form part of the public health toolkit for Covid-19 alongside PCR testing,” he said. 

“We look forward to discussing this science and related matters, including developments around the Delta variant in respect of the UK, with Dr Holohan and his NPHET colleagues.”

Previous meetings

Last week, the committee heard from Professor Michael Mina, who said there has been “confusion” surrounding the use of antigen testing, not only in Ireland, but around the world.

He argued that, in some cases, they could prove more effective than PCR testing, which is the test most widely used and accepted in Ireland.

He said the 50% sensitivity rate associated with antigen tests has to be considered in the wider context of what the goal of testing is.

Dr Mina said: “If you are attempting to limit spread, then the speed of getting a result back is much more critical than getting every ounce of sensitivity to detect the RNA of the virus.”

He said that while PCR tests are more sensitive, they will detect the virus in a person for up to 30 days, much longer than the period of infectiousness, estimated at between 10 and 14 days.

Antigen testing on the other hand, will miss low levels of the virus but detect “very well” its presence at a time when a person is infectious, he said.

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He argued that this could make them more effective than PCR tests when it comes to international travel.

The Government currently requires PCR tests taken 72 hours before a flights departure. 

Mina argued that a person still could become infectious in the period between taking a PCR test and boarding a flight, something which is less likely to happen with a rapid antigen test taken on the day of the flight.

He also argued that daily testing would ultimately be a more effective long-term solution than mandatory quarantine measures for people entering the country.

Mina advocated their use at sporting events, saying antigen of all spectators taken in the hours before an event could reduce risk of transmission by 90 to 95%.

Last month, NPHET “strongly recommended” against the use of antigen testing, in response to them going on sale at the supermarket Lidl, at a cost of €25 for a pack of five.

Today’s committee meeting will take place at 12.30pm and will also be attended by representatives of NPHET, Dr Ronan Glynn, Professor Philip Nolan, Dr Cillian de Gascun, Professor Martin Cormican and Dr Mary Keogan. 

Includes reporting by Press Association

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