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WHO recommends antigen self-testing for Covid-19, here’s why it would be a ‘game changer’ in SA

Image: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Image: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Published Mar 10, 2022


Cape Town - The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that Covid-19 rapid antigen self-testing should be offered in addition to professionally administered testing services.

In South Africa, all Covid-19 testing can only be conducted by healthcare professionals and the results are forwarded to the National Health Laboratory Service.

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Head of Clinical Virology at Lancet Laboratories, Professor Eftyhia Vardas, says that antigen self-testing would be a “game-changer” even as the country reaches a recovery stage of the pandemic.

“The tests have sufficient sensitivity to be able to distinguish infected individuals that are able to transmit the virus. The other problem is that the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) has decided to not approve self-testing for the public,” she said.

WHO head, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a media briefing that evidence has shown self-testing is reliable, accurate and it may reduce inequalities in testing access.

“How countries use self-testing will need to be adapted according to national priorities, local epidemiology, and the availability of resources, with community input.

“We hope that our new guidance will also help to increase access to testing, which is too expensive for many low-income countries, where these tools could play an important role in expanding testing,” he said.

In South Africa, the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test is the gold standard for testing, as it is the most sensitive type of test available. Results take 1-2 days, depending on the demand.

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In November 2021, the Department of Health added rapid antigen tests to the country’s Covid-19 statistics. Prior to that, all Covid-19 positive cases were diagnosed only through the PRC method.

Vardas says the proportion of Covid-19 antigen tests compared to PCR remains low.

Statistics from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) show that in week 9 of this year, until March 5, only 22.8% of all tests were antigen tests.

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None of the antigen testing is allowed to be conducted and recorded by individuals as it isn’t allowed under the country’s regulations.

Vardas said that Covid-19 antigen self-testing would be particularly useful in places where people have to be together, such as hospitals, old age homes, prisons, workplaces, universities and schools.

“Antigen tests are cheaper than PCR and are useful because they can provide a quick test result in order to ensure that transmission of Covid-19 doesn’t occur. They can be very useful for emergency hospital admissions or operations when there is no time to wait for a PCR result.

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“And they have been neglected for travel purposes. An antigen test can be done before someone boards a plane or train or boat and once they have reached their destination and give an immediate answer regarding infectivity and therefore the potential for transmission,” she said.