Covid-safe toolkit: Why you need rapid antigen tests

Whether you’ve got symptoms or just want to be sure, here’s why rapid antigen tests are the way forward in Covid normal.

With the pandemic dragging on, it’s become clear Covid-19 is here to stay, so we have to be smart about how to respond to this constantly evolving virus.

With most of the population vaccinated and governments moving away from lockdowns, new tools, like rapid antigen (RA) tests, will play a significant role in slowing transmission.

Why we need rapid antigen tests

In short, RA tests are a quick way to check you may have Covid.

They’re not quite as sensitive as standard PCR tests – and you’ll still need one of these to confirm a diagnosis if your DIY test is positive.

Still, they can help show if you’re a potential transmission threat much quicker, according to Professor Catherine Bennett Deakin, University Chair in Epidemiology.

“We know antigen tests aren’t perfect, but we know that they’re better at detecting people who have a high infectious load when we need to test them,” Prof Bennett says.

“Using the PCR tests, they take time, and if someone is required to test within three days of crossing a border or going into hospital for elective surgery, they may be incubating the virus at the time, so even if you tested negative, you could be infectious by the time you’re on the plane or in a hospital or in another state,” she says.

In comparison, most RA tests can return a result within 15 to 30 minutes, making them a great tool to check right when we need to know.

How rapid antigen tests are being used overseas

RA tests are currently widely used in other countries, according to Professor Jaya Dantas, from the Curtin School of Population Health, Curtin University.

“Antigen tests are used in Europe, UK, USA, Singapore and several other countries, as a way to move away from lockdowns, and to open up for cross border travel,” Prof Dantas says.

Common scenarios where people use the tests include, when they attend a big event, catch a flight, are a close contact in isolation, or when entering a high-risk work environments such as healthcare settings and schools, she adds.

When to use a rapid antigen test

The World Health Organisation has backed RA testing as a fast and inexpensive way to screen for Covid-19 and reduce transmission.

Approved for use in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Association since November 1, the RA tests are quickly becoming a key feature in many workplace and education settings to reduce transmission.

Prof Dantas says people can use these kits regularly – twice every three days and at least 36 hours between each test – if they want to know their Covid status and minimise the risk of potentially infecting others.

Otherwise, people can use them before attending a special event, when symptomatic, or to test visitors coming into their home if there’s a vulnerable person living there.

Other examples of when you may consider a RA test include:

  • Before attending a gathering with people in crowded indoor or outdoor places e.g. family gatherings, weddings, funerals, and night clubs.
  • Before visiting a person vulnerable to infection, such as an elderly person or a person who is immunocompromised.
  • Before going to a high risk setting e.g. aged care facility or disability group home.
  • Returning from a place with a high number of COVID-19 cases.

“Although they’re not as accurate as a PCR test, if you have a high viral load, it will show a positive result,” Prof Dantas says.

“If the result is positive, then a back-up is required so the person does a PCR test to confirm and isolate.”

RA tests can be purchased in pharmacies, supermarkets, and online in all states except Western Australia and South Australia.

Written by Alex White.