News Coronavirus ‘Like a pregnancy test for your nose’: Calls for rapid antigen tests to be made free of charge

‘Like a pregnancy test for your nose’: Calls for rapid antigen tests to be made free of charge

Rapid antigen tests
Australians are buying rapid antigen tests as Omicron cases rise. Photo: Getty
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As Omicron cases rise and state health authorities continue to spruik rapid antigen tests, experts have called on the federal government to make them available to all Australians free of charge, as they are in other countries.

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, a leading epidemiologist at UNSW, has been calling on the government to supply rapid antigen tests since last December, however, they only received TGA approval in October.

“We need to have them made free, because they are expensive, even though they’re a fraction of the price of the PCR tests,” Professor McLaws told The New Daily.

“They are an important public health preventive tool. And if you’re going to use them properly, you don’t just do a one-off test, you do it over a couple of days.

“So that then becomes expensive, particularly at the time of year when people are enjoying going out and meeting up with friends and family.”

Rapid antigen tests typically cost about $25 for a two pack, or $50 for a five pack.

Professor McLaws said the government would ideally provide people with seven rapid antigen tests per week – one for each day.

“It’s a bit like a pregnancy test for your nose,” she said, noting that they’re faster and less invasive than PCR swabs.

Going, going, gone

On Sunday, New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard said that “a RAT test is the best Christmas present you can give your family” and that they “should be walking out of supermarket aisles”.

A day later, TND contacted 10 pharmacies in Sydney and none had rapid antigen tests in stock. It was a similar story at supermarkets.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are now racing to get more stock, with some even promising to set aside boxes for customers.

Rapid antigen tests can be bought over the counter
Rapid antigen tests can be bought over the counter – assuming they’re in stock. Photo: Getty

A spokesperson for Priceline pharmacies said customers should double check online to see if their local store has any left.

“We are working hard to replenish store stock levels and have plenty of stock on order, which we hope will make its way into stores soon,” they told TND.

One online store, Woolworths-backed HealthyLife, has shipped more than 100,000 rapid antigen tests to the eastern states since November, with more stock remaining.

“Demand for rapid antigen tests has more than doubled in the lead up to Christmas, as customers prepare for festive functions and businesses prepare for employees returning to workplaces in the new year,” HealthyLife general manager of commercial and partnerships Martine Cooper told TND.

The bigger picture

The idea of free rapid antigen tests from the government has been around for months.

In April, the British government began sending out twice-weekly rapid antigen tests via post.

“The UK has been giving them out for free for a very long time, Singapore gives out about five to seven depending on whether you’re a single or household, and the New Zealanders have started to give them out,” Professor McLaws said.

“So we really do need to give them out to everyone – at least seven a week – and if you wanted to have more then you could buy more.”

Several Canadian provinces and territories also offer free tests.

However, some countries have reneged on this offer.

Germany had been providing free rapid antigen tests since March, but stopped subsidising them for most people in October in order to drive up vaccination rates instead.

So far in Australia, health authorities at Darwin Airport are handing out free tests for arriving passengers to use at home if they end up developing symptoms.

Western Australia and South Australia both prohibit the sale of rapid antigen tests owing to their supposed inaccuracy, however, most test kits sold in Australia provide the same results as PCR tests more than 90 per cent of the time, according to the TGA.

Many rapid antigen tests are even 98 or 99 per cent accurate compared to PCR tests.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said consultations were under way within the government and with industry to hone the deployment of rapid antigen tests across the country, but did not address queries regarding cost.