Donnelly promises to publish report on use of rapid antigen testing ‘soon’

Report expected to green-light use of Covid test to monitor outbreaks

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has received a report on the use of rapid antigen testing in Ireland, promising it will be published "soon".

It comes amid pressure from Opposition to release the report, which is expected to give the green light for use of antigen tests to monitor outbreaks in schools and other community settings.

An antigen test uses a swab to take a sample from a person’s nose but the swab does not need to be sent to a laboratory. It is faster than the standard PCR test but is less reliable.

Several well-placed sources also said there had been differences between members of the six-person group during the drafting of the report on the extent to which antigen testing could be used to reopen society and the economy.

However, it is unclear to what extent any disagreements may have impacted on the report or its recommendations. The Department of Health did not respond to questions on whether there had been divisions between members of the group.

Both the Health Service Executive (HSE) and members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) have previously raised concerns about the reliability and implementation of antigen tests on a wider scale.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said it would be "beyond a joke if the report isn't published this week". The Tipperary TD also questioned why the report was taking so long to be published.

“It seems absolutely ridiculous that a report that should take a short length of time, where antigen testing is being used all over the world as part of a suite of measures, that here, yet again, in Ireland we’re lackadaisical, laissez faire and slow in providing antigen testing.”

In a tweet sent on February 27th, Mr Donnelly said that Prof Mark Ferguson, the director general of Science Foundation Ireland, had been appointed to "lead an urgent review of rapid testing" and he was "reporting back very soon"; Mr Donnelly told the Dáil on February 11th that he had set up the group to do a "quick review"; minutes from a Nphet meeting on January 28th show the establishment of the expert group under Prof Ferguson was being discussed at that time.

The expert group is chaired by Prof Ferguson and includes Prof Kingston Mills of Trinity College Dublin, infectious diseases consultant Prof Paddy Mallon and president of the Royal College of Physicians Ireland, Prof Mary Horgan. They are joined by Dr Darina O'Flanagan, former director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and adviser to Nphet, and national clinical director for health protection in the HSE, Dr Lorraine Doherty.

‘Important role’

A spokeswoman for Mr Donnelly said he has received the report and is reviewing it, adding that he supports rapid testing and “believes it has an important role to play, alongside other public health measures, in our defence against Covid-19”.

The State’s health watchdog has said that the rapid-test kits have “reduced diagnostic accuracy” and should not replace PCR testing. However, the Health Information and Quality Authority did say they could be used to enhance the current system.

A HSE paper presented to Nphet in January outlined that there are “significant operational and logistical challenges in introducing antigen detection tests”. It raised concerns that the tests were “not designed to be delivered in large numbers” and pointed out that while each test requires about 20 minutes to prepare and process, in many hospitals rapid PCR tests are available in 3-4 hours and the addition of rapid antigen testing “may slow down the testing process”.

Mr Donnelly’s spokeswoman said that rapid testing is already being used in healthcare settings and a major pilot is underway in meat processing plants. “The Minister and the Department of Health are exploring other areas where these tests can be deployed. The report itself will be published soon.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times