Covid-19 Delta outbreak: Government to pilot rapid antigen testing with private sector

The Government has given the go-ahead for a pilot scheme that will allow businesses to use rapid antigen testing.

Rapid antigen testing has to date not been approved to use in New Zealand beyond a small scheme at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital. The tests will also be used within the next few days at Auckland City and North Shore hospitals, and as a point-of-arrival test in the self-isolation pilots.

The Government has been previously sceptical of rapid antigen testing, noting that it had poorer sensitivity than conventional testing and was inconsistent with the Government’s elimination strategy.

National and Act had been in favour of approving the tests, which would make it easier to get a test.

Associate Minister of Health and Research, Science and Innovation Ayesha Verrall said the Government’s position had changed.

“As more people gain protection through vaccinations, our toolbox is changing. Testing is critical in identifying cases quickly and responding effectively to any outbreaks, and we want to harness testing innovation among the business community to boost our public health response,” Verrall said.

Verrall had been a vocal critic of attempts by National and Act to put pressure on Labour to approve the tests, and once took to Twitter to voice her concern that the Opposition did not understand how the tests worked.

It is not clear what the pilot will look like – Verrall will meet with business leaders tomorrow to iron out the details.

“I’ve been in talks with business leaders, and will meet with them tomorrow to discuss the next steps for safely incorporating rapid antigen testing into our Covid-19 response,” Verrall said.

The Government also released its review into its Covid-19 testing, carried out by the Ministry of Health Covid-19 Testing Technical Advisory Group (TAG).

Verrall said the review highlighted the need for a “future-focused Covid-19 testing strategy”, including “the creation of a dedicated testing approach to facilitate innovation and the implementation of new tests and testing strategies in a timely way”.

The report praised the Government’s testing strategy, saying the “performance of the laboratory sector during the Covid-19 pandemic has been very good overall”.

It said the elimination strategy, which required “the most sensitive tests”, had meant there had been “a relative slowness to introduce saliva testing and to prepare for rapid antigen testing”, despite the fact that these tests would be needed if the Government wanted to reopen to the world.

“It is almost inevitable that [rapid antigen tests] will have a role in the reconnection strategy for Aotearoa New Zealand and it is critical that the country is prepared for this,” the report said.

It added that to prepare for rapid antigen testing, the Government needed to create a system that would help people to report positive test results.

This would be a change from the current system, where positive tests are reported by the public health and laboratory teams who collect and process tests.

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