COVID-19: Government to pilot rapid antigen testing after 25 large businesses seek urgent approval

The Government will pilot rapid antigen testing with the private sector after 25 large businesses sought urgent approval to allow them to protect critical worksites. 

Rapid antigen testing is a screening tool to help detect COVID-19 quickly. The tests will detect most cases of COVID-19 but are not as accurate as the standard test PCR tests. The advantage is that they can be performed easily and onsite with results available within minutes.

"As more people gain protection through vaccinations, our tool box is changing," Associate Minister of Health and Research, Science and Innovation Ayesha Verrall said on Thursday. 

"Testing is 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."

Rapid antigen testing is already being used at Middlemore Hospital in south Auckland where the Delta outbreak has been prevalent. The pilot will start within the next few days at Auckland City and North Shore hospitals. 

Rapid antigen testing will also be used as a point-of-arrival test in the self-isolation pilots in Auckland and Christchurch from October 30 to December 8, with final travellers exiting self-isolation on December 22. 

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is working closely with the business community and the Ministry of Health, to support and accelerate additional levels of testing for New Zealand workers.

"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," Dr Verrall 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.

"That's why we must ensure a robust system is in place so we don't miss cases. Any people who test positive will be verified with further testing, and managed appropriately - including being linked with healthcare."

Professor David Murdoch of the Ministry of Health COVID-19 Testing Technical Advisory Group which has been reviewing testing methods says the Government could have been better prepared for rapid antigen testing. 

"We could have been better prepared, yes," he told a press conference, as the Government announced the pilot.

"One of the key themes in their report is how we adopt and use testing innovations," Verrall acknowledged.

"Work is already underway within the Ministry of Health to consider how rapid antigen testing can best be used to identify new infections, support outbreak investigations through screening, and monitor disease trends."

The Government's announcement came after more than 25 businesses across a range of sectors - from Foodstuffs to The Warehouse to Spark, Vodafone, Mainfreight and ANZ Bank - sought approval for rapid antigen testing to be used in critical worksites. 

"What we are seeking is urgent approval from the Government to allow for the importation of rapid surveillance tests as a critical part of health and safety management in the workplace," said Don Braid, Mainfreight's managing director.

"This is business wanting to take care of their people from a health and safety perspective and to keep their sites operational. Vaccinations and testing are key to this and it is bewildering that the rapid testing we are using in 26 locations around the world is unavailable to us at our home base in New Zealand.

"We believe the Government shares our concern that the addition of antigen testing cannot suffer the long delays that occurred in introducing saliva testing. With the current Delta outbreak we are confident they will act decisively and work with us to make it happen."

Foodstuffs North Island CEO Chris Quin said the company was focused on keeping its team and customers safe and rapid antigen testing would provide a quick and easy way for key staff to test themselves frequently at home or at work.

"COVID-19 isn't disappearing any time soon. We want access to fast testing to provide an additional layer of screening for our essential workforce, who have been hugely co-operative in doing the right thing for each other and New Zealand from a health and safety perspective.

"The tests are proven to be very effective when used frequently."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Wednesday the Government was aware of other countries where rapid antigen testing was being widely used as part of risk mitigation. 

"One of the reasons we've been reluctant in New Zealand is that they are good at detecting acute infection, but detecting early infection, not so good," he said. 

"One of the concerns there is that, particularly when we're dealing with this and still in this phase where we're trying to stamp out every case that we get, they potentially give people some false comfort."

But Hipkins said he believed rapid antigen testing would "become a bigger part of our response fairly soon".