Covid: Use weekly rapid antigen tests in meat-processing plants, says Hiqa

Meat-processing plants have reported some 3,000 cases during pandemic

Meat-processing plants have reported some 3,000 cases during pandemic

Meat-processing plants have reported some 3,000 cases during pandemic


Weekly rapid antigen testing can be deployed in meat-processing plants to limit the spread of Covid-19, the State’s health watchdog has recommended.

Switching to the use of rapid antigen detection tests (RADTs) can increase the detection of cases, reduce the number of days infectious workers are in a plant and cut the overall cost relative to the current practice of monthly polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.

Twice weekly RADT-based serial testing could also be considered as a viable alternative to existing methods, according to the Health Information Quality Authority (Hiqa). Any positive tests should be confirmed by PCR.

Meat-processing plants have experienced a high number of Covid-19 outbreaks during the pandemic, with about 3,000 cases reported.

In response to a series of large outbreaks in plants in the midlands in mid-2020, the Health Service Executive began monthly serial testing of staff using the “gold standard” PCR testing method.

Hiqa has now looked at the potential impact of different serial testing scenarios using RADTs to detect the virus in meat processing plants.

RADTs are generally considered less accurate than PCR testing. However, they are faster, and cheaper multiple tests can be performed, leading to improved detection rates.

In its report to the HSE, Hiqa modelled the impact of using RADTs in addition to and as an alternative to the current practice.

“We have advised the HSE on the benefits of introducing RADTs for serial testing in meat processing plants at a frequency of once a week,” said Dr Conor Teljeur, Hiqa’s chief scientist.

However, he said, before discontinuing monthly PCR serial testing, further evaluation would need to be carried out to ensure this is both acceptable to relevant stakeholders and is implementable within the individual plants.

A “step-wise” transition to frequent rapid testing could take place on a plant-by-plant basis, he suggested.

The higher risk associated with meat-processing plants has been linked to a reduced ability to social distance, cold air, limited ventilation and loud work-spaces.

Other non-environmental factors identified include shared accommodation for workers, low wages and issues around access to support payments.

Hiqa says its findings cannot be applied to other settings due to the “specificity” of the data to meat processing plants.

Antigen testing is also expected to be used in schools and colleges this autumn.