Department of Transport requested pilot study on antigen testing, says Ryan

Minister of State wrote in April to all departments on report recommendations

 A paramedic puts a Covid-19 sample into a rapid antigen test kit. Photograph: Farooq Khan/EPA

A paramedic puts a Covid-19 sample into a rapid antigen test kit. Photograph: Farooq Khan/EPA

 

The Department of Transport requested a pilot study in April on the use of antigen testing based on the recommendations of the Ferguson report, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has told the Dáil.

The report of the Covid-19 Rapid Testing Group, chaired by theGovernment’s Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Mark Ferguson recommended the introduction of rapid tests to complement existing PCR testing programmes.

Health officials attending the Oireachtas Transport Committee on Wednesday said no request had been made about testing airline passengers using antigen tests which are cheap to perform and deliver results within minutes, but are less accurate than PCR tests.

Officials said requests had been received from the Department of Agriculture to use the tests at meat plants and the Department of Further and Higher Education sought antigen testing in pilot studies at third-level colleges.

Mr Ryan said “yes” when he came under pressure from Sinn Féin transport spokesman Darren O’Rourke in the Dáil on Thursday about whether his department had requested such testing on a pilot basis.

The Minister said that in April, Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton who has responsibility for the aviation sector, “wrote to the Taoiseach and all Government Ministers including the Minister for Health promoting the recommendations from that (Ferguson)report which made the case for using antigen testing on a trial basis”.

Significant caution

Mr Ryan said he watched with interest the reports of the committee hearing at which the State’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned that use of rapid antigen tests to facilitate the reopening of society posed multiple risks due to their limitations and the lack of supporting evidence.

Dr Holohan urged “significant caution” about using antigen testing to “green light” or “enable” the resumption of activities after lockdown, “particularly while not accounting for the prevailing epidemiological situation”.

Mr Ryabn siad the Govnement was willing to talk to Dr Holohan to see “if he’s willing to introduce such tests as has been requested.

“We will absolutely work with the CMO and make that happen straight away. But it is with the CMO,” he said.

Mr O’Rourke said it would be “hugely frustrating for people to hear that this was looked at or recommended in April and we still have no action in relation to it”.

The Meath East TD said that in November, he had called for a comparative study between antigen and PCR testing.

He added that following the liquidation of Stobart Air last week with the loss of 480 jobs, there is “very serious frustration in the aviation sector with the Government” about a lack of a plan and failure to introduce pilot studies on antigen testing.

Mr O’Rourke said he heard Minister for Higher and Further Education Simon Harris in a radio interview taking about “an academic argy bargy on the issue of antigen testing and the need to properly assess it.

“We heard there isn’t an evidence base there. I think we could be preparing this evidence base; we don’t know where it’s going to take us but it’s legitimate to test it,” he said, to see if a combination of systems of testing could work.

Mr Ryan said that what people want more than anything else “was an end to the Government recommendation on essential travel only”.

He said that would begin again effectively on July 19th and, due to mass vaccination, the aim “will be to have people fly without having to take a test”.