Australia

At $10 a pop, rapid COVID tests are the way to a safer, more open Australia

Small COVID-19 leaks from quarantine can have dire population-wide effects. Just look at Victoria’s two-week lockdown following a single case escaping from quarantine in South Australia.

People look at the federal facility in Howard Springs and assume its physical features – accommodation blocks spread across 67 hectares, separate cabins, fresh air – are the reason it hasn’t had a community outbreak. But they are missing a vital component of its administration: the daily rapid antigen tests used by AUSMAT – the federal Health swat team that has until recently supervised the facility.

The quarantine facility at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory.

This may be the key to why the Howard Springs facility has yet to face an outbreak

Rapid antigen tests use a test strip, like a pregnancy test, that reacts to the presence of viral proteins in a sample swabbed from the throat and nose. Results are available in minutes, not hours, as occurs with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests used by other facilities, including the hotel quarantine that forms the backbone of the Australian quarantine system.

Slower PCR test results mean staff may mingle in the community for hours before they know they are infectious. So may people being discharged from quarantine. Both can result in catastrophic outcomes, such as community outbreaks, if staff or those leaving quarantine are moving around the community unaware they are COVID-positive. This can result in uncontrolled community spread, as happened in Victoria recently, necessitating statewide lockdown.

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If we want to make our quarantine system safer and avoid further outbreaks, building more Howard Springs-type facilities is not the answer. Daily rapid antigen tests could give us the security we need. They could help prevent quarantine workers spreading COVID-19 into the community when they return home every night from work. And returned overseas travellers could be retested post-quarantine to quickly identify those rare cases that become positive after leaving a facility.

Their speedy results are attractive given the emergence of new highly infectious variants of concern. Their low cost – $10 a test – means they are cost-effective to deploy regularly. Add mask-wearing precautions for those leaving quarantine for the first week and widespread community outbreaks could become a thing of the past. No one wants to be that case that locks down a state.

Britain is already offering free rapid antigen testing to all citizens twice weekly. Once vaccination is rolled out more fully in Australia, rapid antigen testing could also work for the general community. Regular, rapid community monitoring could help keep the population safe, particularly as we begin to open borders after the vaccine rollout.

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