58 million COVID-19 rapid antigen tests secured as modelling shows demand could reach 9 million a week

The Government has secured an additional 36 million COVID-19 rapid antigen tests over the next two months as modelling shows demand could reach 9 million a week at the peak of Omicron. 

There are currently 5.1 million rapid tests in New Zealand, with 16.9 million already confirmed for delivery in February. The additional 36 million to be delivered over the next two months brings the total to 58 million over the next eight weeks. 

"A total of 123 million rapid antigen tests [RATs] have been ordered through to June, which will allow for regular and widespread testing to occur," Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said on Tuesday.

"Modelling on the use of rapid antigen tests through the outbreak suggests that during the peak we may be using as many as nine million RATs a week which is equivalent to testing a quarter of New Zealand every day, or all of New Zealand twice a week.

"That scale of testing will go a long way to reducing the risk of an infected person going to work and infecting others, and will help with keeping critical services and supply chains open and moving."

The Government came under fire last week amid accusations it had "commandeered" incoming stock of rapid antigen tests. 

RATs had only been available for select employers and unvaccinated people to use for travel purposes. But wider use of them was part of the Government's plan to slow down the highly infectious Omicron variant. 

However, at the time, there were only 14.6 million expected to arrive in the following weeks, so the Government decided to prioritise its bulk order. 

"We have discussed with our three main suppliers, which are Abbott, Roche and Siemens, that forward orders of tests that haven't yet arrived in the country be consolidated into the Government's stock so that it is there for the whole country, including private businesses," Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said last week. 

Dr Verrall said no tests ordered by the private sector prior to the Government's largest order in January have been used to fill Government orders.

Pictured: COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Associate Health Minister Dr Aeysha Verrall. Photo credit: Getty Images

"There is significant global supply constraint at the moment so the Government is working alongside business to assist with ensuring orders are met," she said. 

"Some suppliers have continued to meet all their private sector orders while others have been forced to prioritise. The Government is actively working with suppliers to support the private sector to get access to RATs in a competitive global market. 

"If businesses can find an approved supply of RATs and they can import them, there is nothing stopping businesses from using these tests.

"The use and supply of RATs will continue to be prioritised to ensure we are protecting the vulnerable and to enable asymptomatic critical workers to return to work. These additional supplies will go a long way to ensuring those who most need a test can access one."

The Ministry of Health has been placing regular orders of RATs since October last year, and the quantities ordered have increased substantially since early December. 

But the Government needs to significantly increase the number of RATs in its possession as part of the next phase of its Omicron response. 

Phase 2, which will come into effect when there are still "less than 1000" cases a day, according to Dr Verrall, will see the isolation period for cases reduced to 10 days and seven for contacts. 

A traditional nasal swab PCR test will still be used to confirm cases of COVID-19, but rapid antigen tests will start to be used in addition to identify symptomatic people and close contacts. 

Rapid antigen test. Photo credit: Newshub

"They will be useful when the laboratories cannot provide PCR results within a useful time frame because of large volumes or because of transport delays," Dr Verrall said last week. 

If workers included in the yet-to-be-determined 'essential worker' list are flagged as a contact, they will be able to return to work with evidence of a negative rapid antigen test. 

"Household contacts will actively be managed by contact tracing services, with close contacts requiring a PCR test on day five," Dr Verrall said. 

"Digital technology is used more in this phase. Cases will be notified via text message and be directed to an online self-investigation tool which will focus on high risk exposures. Information will be provided via email and phone based interviews will still take place where it's required."

The third phase comes into play when cases are in the thousands. 

The definition of contacts will change to household and household-like contacts only. This will mean only the highest risk contacts will need to be isolated. But the isolation periods will remain the same - 10 days for cases and seven for contacts. 

Due to so many cases per day, the focus of PCR testing will only be for priority groups, though those groups will still be able to use a rapid antigen for symptomatic diagnosis. RATs will be available at GPs, pharmacies, testing centres or workplaces for symptomatic or critical workers. 

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