Even with the lifting of almost all pandemic restrictions in recent days the explosion in the use of self-testing antigen tests is set to continue and likely to form a key part of the return to work and the reopening of the economy.
Resisted for a significant period by health officials here, the huge rise of the Omicron variant put the more accurate PCR testing system under severe pressure and meant the rapid, and relatively cheap, antigen tests have now become a common feature of households and workplaces across the country.
The demand for the devices has proved a challenge for companies importing and distributing the tests.
Arthur Griffin, the co-founder of test supply company CoviSal, based in Tipperary, believes that even though nearly all pandemic restrictions have been lifted, self-testing will continue and will now broaden into other areas of healthcare.
To date, CoviSal, which is based in Thurles, has imported and distributed more than one million antigen tests across Ireland. In one day in January 2022, CoviSal sold 100,000 antigen tests.
“The month of January is just off the Richter scale by comparison to what we would have done over the last year,” he said.
CoviSal supplies antigen tests to pharmacists, vets, opticians, dentists, and the construction industry. The company has around 3,000 customers and Covisal is just one company importing and distributing such tests.
The European Commission has approved almost 550 different types of rapid antigen tests allowing them to carry the CE mark and be approved for sale across the bloc.
According to the list of approved tests, China is by far the largest producer manufacturing more than 280 different types of approved tests.
Germany is the largest producer within the EU manufacturing 23 different types of tests.
Although locations that sell antigen tests have been scrambling to keep up with demand as the Omicron variant swept through the country, secretary general of the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) Darragh O’Loughlin is confident that pharmacies will be able to meet future demand.
“It's unclear to what extent people will be using antigen tests in everyday life going forward but supplies of antigen tests into the country have improved recently and pharmacies have been able to restock so, barring any unexpected interruptions to supply, I expect that pharmacies should be able to meet demand in future,” he said.
The popularity and ease of use of antigen tests indicate to Griffin that there’s an opportunity to develop other self-testing kits.
"Now that people are used to self-testing, I think the demand for it in other products, whether you’re checking your thyroid, checking if you have STDs, or whatever," Mr Griffin said.
Letting people self-test for other diseases apart from Covid-19 would alleviate the growing pressure on GP surgeries as well said Mr Griffin.
“There is an emerging problem in Ireland where there's a significant shortage of doctors. And the age profile of our GPs is getting very close to retirement and therefore it's difficult to get a doctor's appointment,” he said.
Figures from the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) estimated that of the approximately 4,700 GPs currently working in the State, 700 will retire over the next five years, while just 350 GP training places are planned for 2026.
Mr O'Loughlin echoed this opinion that the genie is out of the bottle for self-testing: "So many more people now have experience of using self-tests as a result of the widespread use of antigen tests that they will be more open to the idea of using similar self-test kits for other conditions.
CoviSal was born when the Cork businessman was approached by Killian Dunphy, managing director of KD Surgical which supplies surgical equipment to hospitals, in 2020. Dunphy saw the growing antigen test market and the pair decided to team up to create CoviSal.
They launched it in October 2020 and both men became directors of the company and brought on Martin O’Brien to be its operations and business development manager.
For now, the company will continue to provide Covid-19 antigen tests as the virus “is far from gone”, according to Griffin.
“I think there's a place for antigen testing over the coming three to four or five months, right up to the summer, where companies will need to reopen safely,” he said.