In the wake of the Health Minister Stephen Donnelly's quick Covid-19 test turnaround, experts have said pooled testing and rapid tests could play a crucial role in suppressing the virus especially as we come into the winter months.
This week saw the value of faster test results impacting directly on the business of government, when Mr Donnelly's test was fast-tracked after he felt unwell on Tuesday.
Within hours, he received a negative test result, allowing his cabinet colleagues to stop self-isolating and for the Oireachtas to resume.
It is not clear if a rapid test was used but a spokesperson at the Department of Health said the test was ‘expedited’ on request from the Government Secretary “because of the implications for the workings of government and the Oireachtas”.
Under the current network of test centres and labs, test results are being turned around in just over two days, on average.
The recent reopening of schools, however, has placed additional pressure on the testing system, which has a maximum capacity of 100,000 tests per week. Last week 71,000 tests were processed.
The system, which is also carrying out serial or regular testing in nursing homes, meat and food plants, and direct provision centres, could come under further pressure during the cold and flu season.
UCC Professor of Biochemistry Tom Cotter, however, said rapid testing and pooled testing could have a role to play.
Pooled testing, which is being considered by the National Public Health Emergency Team, is being trialled in Germany and the US and would help to get ahead of the viral curve, he said.
Testing capacity at frankfurt airport is 30000 a day. Everyone from an at risk country is tested. Results in 6 hrs. Why can’t we do this in dublin airport . A no brainer. #Covid_19— Tom Cotter (@ProfTomCotter) September 15, 2020
Rapid Covid-19 tests, which can detect if an individual is currently infectious within 30 minutes, could also speed up testing and tracing.
“Every time somebody has a little sniffle they are sent for a Covid-19 test and that’s going to get worse in the winter because we’ll all pick up these coughs and colds that have nothing to do with Covid-19,” Professor Cotter told the Irish Examiner.
“If you can get pooled testing and rapid testing in GP surgeries then you really will take pressure off the system,” he added.
Rapid tests, he said, were being developed mainly in the US and were slightly less sensitive (85%) than the standard PCR test (98%).
“It’s a question of whether these tests would be readily available to Ireland ,” he said.
Pooled testing would have particular benefits for schools, workplaces, and other congregated settings, he said, estimating that all secondary schools could be tested for Covid-19 through 16,000 pooled tests per week.
This would involve pooling individual saliva samples from a class of pupils and testing for Covid-19 using the standard PCR test; a positive pooled sample would indicate the need to test all students.
“This would mean that you’re getting ahead of the virus rather than chasing it,” Professor Cotter said.
The HSE said testing capacity is constantly under review, more testing and tracing staff are being recruited, and a new testing and tracing model is being finalised.
“It is important that we continue to weigh this serial testing up against the demand for community testing, which is increasing week on week,” a spokesperson said.