A question of testing

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Rapid antigen tests: the PSA says pharmacies need them to remain open, while TGA warns against their widespread use

The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia’s NSW branch has called on the state government to introduce funded Rapid Antigen Testing for pharmacists and their staff to ensure the vital care they offer to the community can continue.

PSA NSW Branch President, Chelsea Felkai, said: “As we move into a new phase of the pandemic with significantly higher case numbers, Rapid Antigen Testing will need to play a significant role in reducing isolation periods of pharmacists and identifying infection prior to onset of symptoms in high risk settings.”

Ms Felkai said the tests were “desperately needed” in rural areas especially.

“Many of our regional communities are already facing significant workforce shortages. They do not have the resources or flexibility to cope when employees need to isolate for extended periods. Given that PCR test results are currently taking five or six days to be returned, this potentially closes a pharmacy for an entire week,” she said.

“Rapid Antigen Testing can also be used as additional surveillance testing in areas of sustained community transmission. Currently this would be akin to Sydney’s LGAs of concern and regional outbreak areas such as Dubbo, Bourke and Broken Hill. But as we move into Phase B and Phase C of the reopening plan, where case numbers are much higher, there is a significantly greater need for surveillance testing of health care workers including pharmacists.”

The topic of rapid antigen tests was discussed at a special Estimates hearing of the Senate Community Affairs Committee late last week.

At the hearing, Adjunct Professor John Skerritt, head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration warned against recent  calls for their provision within a pharmacy setting as a surveillance tool.

“At the moment, for example, you wouldn’t want to have symptomatic people going into a pharmacy when pharmacists and their staff and other customers are not in full PPE—gowns and masks and face shields—to have a rapid antigen test. You want those people to go to a PCR testing centre if they’re symptomatic,” he said.

Questioning Prof Skerritt, Senator Dean Smith (LNP, WA) said “If I’ve understood you correctly, you’re saying the rapid antigen test and the PCR test are not changeable”.

“They’re not,” Dr Skerritt responded. “But rapid antigen tests do have a very useful role, because they can be done quickly and on site.

“Again, the supervision is also there to make sure that people isolate and immediately go to have a PCR test. So they’re very useful for picking up people who shouldn’t be around others. Even if there are false positives, it’s better to say to someone, ‘Hop in your car, go and line up in the queue and have a PCR test’.

“It would be great if they could automatically go to the front of a queue if they had a positive rapid antigen test, but that’s up to the states and territories to determine.”

Dr Skerritt also raised a role for pharmacists in providing antigen test support for the NSW Education Department when schools resumed. 

“I’ve been in contact with the secretary of the education department in New South Wales, Georgina Harrison, about the fact they need to have a connection with the companies, with pharmacists or with nurses that can be available to advise if they get funny results or if they don’t know how to interpret results or advice on sampling and provide training.”

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1 Comment

  1. Jack Leigh

    Don’t understand the reluctance of the TGA to give out Rapid antigen testing kits to the general population for home testing as they have been doing in the UK for many months. A person just walks into any pharmacy and asks for a pack of test kits which are given out for free. According to the NHS (National Health Service) website they are 99.9% accurate. Any comments would be appreciated.

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