Rapid antigen tests to be trialled in workplaces

Rapid antigen tests will be trialled in workplaces, following its roll out in Middlemore Hospital. 

A stock image of a rapid antigen test.

Rapid antigen tests are similar to a pregnancy test which has with two blue lines displayed for a positive result. The nasal swab tests can return results in about 15 minutes.

It was introduced at Middlemore Hospital and is set to start at other Auckland hospitals and will be used as the point-of-arrival test in returnees in the self-isolation pilots of travellers overseas. 

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said testing was "critical in identifying cases quickly and responding effectively to any outbreaks, and we want to harness testing innovation amongst the business community to boost our public health response".

"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," she said. 

"While this technology provides a result quickly, rapid antigen testing tends to be less sensitive at detecting cases - especially in asymptomatic people, or those who are either very early in or towards the end of their infectious period."

The National Party had been calling for rapid antigen testing since February, the first point in their five point plan in managing community outbreaks. 

In September, Verrall retweeted National Chris Bishop, who spoke about the then-ban on rapid antigen tests in New Zealand, adding they should be distributed across South Auckland. 

Verrall asked if Bishop understood what test sensitivity meant, if he wondered why "NZ microbiologist Dr Ussher said he didn’t see a role for this" and "did he imagine South Auckland two weeks later when those who falsely tested negative turn up in hospital?"

Verrall also agreed that there was a role for the tests in the future, but the use was included in the 'reconnecting plan'.

Verrall on Thursday said that until most New Zealanders are vaccinated, "the cost of missing a case has been too high for us to rely on tests that cannot provide us with high levels of certainty".

"As the strategy evolves to one based on high levels of vaccination, where we continue to stamp out Covid-19, our approach to testing can also adapt to the new environment.

"When we are well protected by vaccinations, we can in certain circumstances, use lower sensitivity tests that provide other benefits, such as accessibility and convenience so that we detect more cases overall."

A review of Covid-19 testing was released by the Covid Technical Advisory Group. 

It recommended an urgent approach to parter with Māori, Pasifika, disability, rural, business, and other community groups to create "fit for purpose innovative testing strategies".

Verrall said work was underway "to consider how rapid antigen testing can best be used to identify new infections, support outbreak investigations through screening, and monitor disease trends".