Covid-19 infection rates in meat plants can be cut with rapid antigen tests, the Health Information & Quality Authority (Hiqa) has advised.
Giving the tests twice a week was found to be a more effective solution than the existing monthly PCR testing regimes, or having more frequent antigen testing.
Hiqa said people working in meat processing plants are at a higher risk of Covid-19. There have been roughly 3,000 cases associated with meat plant outbreaks.
Its chief scientist Dr Conor Teljeur said this is partly due to the circulation of cold air, noisy workplaces, and workers sharing accommodation.
He said the test was validated by the HSE to compare sensitivity rates for symptomatic and asymptomatic people.
“The finding is the sensitivity was in the order of 53% overall, but when you look at people who have high viral loads and most at risk of transmitting the virus, the sensitivity is closer to 80%,” he said.
“That’s why you need to do it regularly. You mightn’t detect a [positive] person today but you might detect them the next day as their viral load increases.”
The swab is also less invasive. Dr Teljeur noted some workers refer to the PCR swab as “a brain biopsy". But he said meat plants have been slow to run antigen tests in comparison to their acceptance of HSE-run PCR tests.
“In Letterkenny, they did one day of testing and I think it took four scientists a full 10-hour day to go through 250 people. The test is rapid in terms of how soon you get the result, but it is labour-intensive,” he said. It must be checked within a precise time limit or the result is “indeterminate”.
Professor Mary Horgan, a member of the government's Covid-19 rapid testing group, welcomed the report.
She said: “It is the first report highlighting the usefulness of antigen testing in protecting us.”
Prof Horgan, infectious diseases consultant at Cork University Hospital, said they could become part of our lives in the way masks have.
Hiqa indicates frequent testing is more cost-effective and picks up more infections than PCR testing, which Prof Horgan hopes could be applied in other workplaces.
“It is an additional tool for us to open society safely and sustainably,” she said.