New test could defend against virus

By | December 23, 2020

A new rapid COVID-19 test that can produce a positive or negative result in just 15 minutes could bolster Australia’s response to coronavirus, according to a Melbourne doctor.

General practitioner Dr Peter Lewis said the rapid antigen test only surfaced in the medical realm in the past few weeks and was already being manufactured in China.

But he said there were still some unknowns about the test.

“It’s really cutting edge – the tests can be done anywhere, at an airport, hotels, at police stations,” Dr Lewis told NCA NewsWire.

The new test is much faster than the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test used globally, which takes either hours or days to get a result.

“It can be done anywhere and on anyone and you get the test result in 15 minutes – it’s exactly like a pregnancy test,” Dr Lewis said.

“It’s also extremely cost effective. It costs just 10 per cent of what the PCR test does. It’s very new technology but we don’t yet know how reliable it is.”

Dr Lewis said the test was 93.4 per cent accurate against the standard PCR test in China, but acknowledged China’s samples were old as they didn’t have any active coronavirus infections.

He said the test was deemed 97 and 98 per cent accurate in the Czech Republic and Slovenia, where there were thousands of active virus cases.

It was also being tested and used in Liverpool, the UK and US, Dr Lewis said.

“The PCR is the most sensitive test, but it is only as sensitive as the quality of the swab. What we know so far about the rapid antigen test is in its first four days it’s 20 per cent effective and between day five and 10 rises to 80 per cent,” he said.

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“At day six we know it’s as accurate as the PCR. But does PCR become more reliable two or three days earlier than the antigen rapid test? We need more data to know for sure.”

The stem cell therapy and sport medicine doctor said he wasn’t calling for Australia to completely adopt the rapid antigen test.

“The pushback from laboratories would be strong,” Dr Lewis said.

“There’s no need for any laboratory process in this form of testing. It would be a radical shake-up of the entire pathology industry as the money in pathology is in making sure every specimen goes back to the lab.”

Rather, he said the rapid antigen test could complement PCR COVID-19 testing moving forward.

“I had a patient the other day who said they didn’t want to be tested for coronavirus because they didn’t want to have to take a day off work as they waited for results,” Dr Lewis said.

“The PCR test is making some people reluctant to get tested. It’s very hard to get people to isolate on a maybe. So it’s not to say antigen rapid testing will replace, it’s a facet to PCR testing.

“At the moment PCR testing is being held up as the gold standard, but if we can combine PCR with a rapid form of COVID-19 testing then that would be the gold standard.”

Another Melbourne general practitioner Dr Mark Hobart said he understood the test to work like a “urine pregnancy test”.

“I know it tests at a higher viral load which is good because the PCR test can be too sensitive and pick up bits of dead virus and who knows what else,” he said.

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“Rapid antigen testing could probably be a more reliable indication if someone is perhaps contagious or infectious.”

Australian National University infectious diseases physician professor Peter Collignon told NCA NewsWire six months ago rapid antigen tests had “no place at all”.

“That’s quite different now, there are a number of these tests available by the bigger companies and they seem to be much more reliable,” he said.

Prof Collignon said American medical company Abbott Diagnostics and Aussie pharmaceutical giant Becton Dickinson had versions of the test already approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“The big advantage is you can get results back with these tests in 15-20 minutes,” he said.

“But I’d still want to be doing PCR tests, especially in Australia where we want minimal to no transmission, you don’t want to be running a risk with a test that’s 94 per cent accurate as opposed to 99 per cent.”

Deakin University chair in epidemiology Catherine Bennett agreed rapid antigen tests had not proven to be very accurate in detecting traces of coronavirus in the past.

“But if the new and more recent rapid tests are encroaching the same accuracy as the PCR test then that problem becomes smaller and it’s certainly worth looking at,” she said.

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