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What is rapid antigen testing?

Yesterday, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced 28 rapid antigen tests have been approved in Australia. He went on to say that rapid antigen testing would play a “big part” in Australia’s pathway out of lockdown, and that rapid antigen tests will “soon” be available in workplaces and in the home environment.

So, what is rapid antigen testing?

Rapid antigen testing is a testing method used to detect COVID-19. Just like the current polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing method Australia is using, rapid antigen tests use a swab from the nose and throat to collect a sample. The swab from your nose and throat are placed into a chemical solution, and then on a strip of paper. The paper is reactive, and will show you the result. The benefit of the rapid antigen test is that it delivers results much faster than the current PCR tests. Results are usually available within 30 minutes. 

While a rapid antigen test produces faster results, it does have a higher false negative rate compared to most traditional PCR tests when screening for COVID-19. A false negative is when the test will say that you’re clear of COVID, when in fact you’re carrying the virus. This is the reason why the tests are not widely rolled out in Australia currently.

When considering whether Australia should use the tests, health experts pose one key question – is the prevalence of COVID low enough to continue with slower, more reliable testing, or is there enough community spread to necessitate fast testing that might not be as accurate.

With three major Australian cities in lockdown and the Delta strain continuing to spread, the conversation about rapid antigen testing has been accelerated. NSW schools are expected to use the testing method when students return next month, while communities on the NSW/QLD border and remote and regional communities all have these tests on their radar.

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