New Zealand is under pressure to prepare for the inevitable escape of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 into the community.
Health officials will be heartened we’re keeping a lid on Delta, with only 35 community cases reported on Friday – and with the rush on booster shots, 43,000 of which were administered yesterday.
But there’s another tool for battling Omicron that Kiwis will soon have a lot more access to.
All New Zealanders – not just those who are unvaccinated – will soon be able to buy a rapid antigen test for COVID-19.
Making the tests more widely available is in response to the threat of the Omicron variant, which is expected to overwhelm current testing services and labs if its spreads widely.
The rapid antigen test is not as accurate as your traditional test, but it’s fast and convenient.
“People would be able to for example buy rapid antigen tests for themselves, but also we think from a public health response that we’ll be using rapid antigen tests themselves as the same way we do currently with the PCR tests,” Deputy Director General of Health Dr Caroline McElnay told Newshub.
Omicron is more transmissible and the Ministry of Health (MoH) wants to avoid the shambolic testing scenes witnessed in Australia where health services were overwhelmed.
“Should we be in a situation where we have higher prevalence of COVID in the community then rapid antigen tests become a much more useful tool,” said Dr McElnay.
Only four brands of rapid antigen test have approval here. The MoH has 3 million in its stockpile and another 20 million have been ordered.
Orient Gene is one brand that’s been used in the UK, Italy, Spain and Portugal for over a year, but one supplier’s faced difficulty getting the green light here.
A lawyer for the supplier says his client can offer a more cost-effective test than what’s currently being offered.
“We have been trying for over a year now to open the doors [for the test] to be used in New Zealand and we just keep getting essentially the runaround,” said Auckland Barrister Kahu Barron-Afeaki SC.
“Every single person in this country is directly affected by a slow and cumbersome administration.”
The MoH now says it’s changing the rules to make it easier to import the tests.
“The Ministry will certainly be looking at how we can improve or speed up some of those processes,” said Dr McElnay.
The Government has been warned to embrace innovation more widely for months. In September Sir Brian Roche said: “There needs to be a breakthrough to enable saliva testing and rapid antigen testing to be rolled out widely as soon as possible.”
The Opposition says rapid tests should be on the shelves right now.
“It’s just unacceptable that that’s not the case in New Zealand at the moment,” said Chris Bishop, National’s COVID Response Spokesperson.
“We are way behind the rest of the world. Australia has it. The United Kingdom has been giving away rapid tests to its citizens for free for many months now.”
Epidemiologist Rod Jackson says getting more rapid tests is important, but it’s not the most vital tool.
“It’s going to be all about vaccination – boosters, vaccinating kids. And mask wearing,” said Professor Jackson.
“This really is the time to go out and get vaccinated because [Omicron] is coming.”
It could be just days or weeks before the Omicron variant leaks into the New Zealand community and spreads.
Dr McElnay said an announcement on when exactly the public could get access to rapid tests is expected next week.
As for the cost, Mainfreight – one of the few businesses in New Zealand that has had been allowed to use the rapid test – paid between $10 and $12 per kit.
However, Barron-Afeaki said the company he represents could supply each kit for as little as $5.20 – if they get approval.