Use rapid COVID tests to screen for coronavirus in travellers, contacts to free up laboratory PCR tests: UNSW epidemiologist

High-quality rapid COVID tests should be used to screen contacts of coronavirus cases and people wanting to travel interstate to free up expensive laboratory testing capacity, a leading epidemiologist says.

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, said take-home COVID tests were a better screening tool for people potentially exposed to the virus and inbound travellers, and should be used in a nationally consistent way.

"If the authorities want us to learn to live with this virus - and I detest that statement - I think we need to reduce the likelihood of it coming in," Professor McLaws said.

Rapid COVID tests are a more appropriate screening tool, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws says. Picture: Shutterstock

Rapid COVID tests are a more appropriate screening tool, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws says. Picture: Shutterstock

Professor McLaws, who advises the World Health Organisation, said polymerase chain reaction tests were expensive and took time for results to come back, potentially slowing down health authorities' understanding of coronavirus spread and heightening the risk of people absconding from isolation while waiting for results.

Inbound overseas travellers should have a rapid antigen test for COVID-19 on arrival, rather than be allowed to leave the airport and complete a PCR test within 24 hours, as is the case in Victoria, Professor McLaws said.

"If somebody tests positive, they can have a rapid PCR test at the border, in the airport. It's more expensive than the lab-based one, but you're not going to use it very often," she said.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has approved 15 at-home rapid COVID tests for use in Australia; five have "very high sensitivity", meaning more than 95 per cent of people with COVID-19 would return a positive result on the test.

Professor McLaws said rapid antigen tests were less accurate than PCR tests, but a course of rapid tests over three days would match the accuracy to determine whether someone was not infected with COVID.

"[PCR tests are] very good, but they're expensive, and you don't want to slow down the understanding of if someone has an infection any slower," she said.

"This would free it up and this would also get people used to the idea that testing when you're asymptomatic is common place and it's not perfect, but it's better than waiting for a long time and for people to then wander off and maybe, I don't know, go to a bar in Newcastle and cause a superspreading event."

Laboratory-based PCR tests for COVID-19 are available for free at government clinics in the ACT. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Laboratory-based PCR tests for COVID-19 are available for free at government clinics in the ACT. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Two men received fines this week for allegedly skipping self-isolation to go clubbing in Newcastle before testing positive.

The two 20-year-olds attended the Argyle House nightclub, the same day both had been ordered to self-isolate as they were close contacts of COVID-19 cases. More than 200 people have acquired the virus at the party.

Professor McLaws said it would be a "disaster" to reduce access to PCR tests without replacing them with some other system, such as accessible rapid antigen testing.

In lieu of moving to rapid antigen tests, health authorities should provide separate clinics for people needing to receive a PCR test for travel and those who present for testing with symptoms or have been identified as a contact of a confirmed case, she said.

The World Health Organisation had sought to remind countries vaccines were not the only measure required to lessen the impact of COVID-19, and other measures, including distancing and mask wearing, were still required, Professor McLaws said.

"Authorities don't appreciate this. I think they're giving up the fight," she said.

Health authorities in the ACT have moved to slightly reduce the capacity to collect PCR tests in Canberra, but said they were confident they could continue to meet demand.


The Exhibition Park drive-through testing clinic, which was processing about 1200 cars a day, closed on Friday, and a new clinic at Mitchell, which will process up to roughly 1000 cars a day, opened on Saturday.

Canberra Health Services chief operating officer Cathie O'Neill on Friday said testing demand in recent days had "come out of the blue", but had begun to drop off.

Ms O'Neill said anecdotal reports from testing clinics showed about 60 per cent of presentations were for people seeking tests to travel interstate.

"So we would really encourage people just to spread their visit out through the day, because if the flow's constant, then we get through everyone without anybody having to wait," Ms O'Neill said.

There was a two-hour wait at the Mitchell testing clinic at 10am on Saturday, ACT Health said in a post on Twitter, while a pop-up clinic at Dickson College had a wait time of more than an hour.

The testing clinic at the Garran surge centre was more than 2.5 hours, while the Kambah drive-through testing clinic had a wait time of more than two hours.

ACT Health received 3362 negative test results in the 24 hours to 9am on Saturday, and reported 18 new cases of COVID-19 in the 24 hours to 8pm on Friday.

Ms O'Neill on Friday said there was unlikely to be delays in test results from the pathology lab at Canberra Hospital, despite a receptionist testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week.

This story Use rapid tests to screen for COVID and free up laboratory tests: epidemiologist first appeared on The Canberra Times.