How rapid Covid-19 tests work. Graphic by Keagan le Grange.
How rapid Covid-19 tests work. Graphic by Keagan le Grange.

Why rapid Covid-19 testing could be beneficial for SA

By Kelly Jane Turner Time of article published Mar 2, 2021

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Testing for Covid-19 has considerable value when it comes to trying to contain the spread of the virus.

In an effort to curb infections and prevent a third wave, Public Health England announced last week that free rapid Covid tests will be offered to the families of all learners in the country under plans to reopen schools from 8 March.

Medical Director at Public Health England Professor Yvonne Doyle said in a press release that the rapid testing would help "uncover hidden cases".

“These rapid tests will help break chains of transmission, stopping outbreaks before they occur. Combined with other protective measures, they are a vital tool to help us lower infection rates and ensure that they stay low,” she said.

Public Health England said the rapid testing will continue to be a vital part of their response to Covid-19.

“As we cautiously ease restrictions in England, starting with the return of schools and moving towards more social mixing at the end of March, we need to be sure that each Covid-19 case is found as quickly and as easily as possible.

’’Although cases are declining, everyone needs to play their part to keep the virus under control while keeping children and young people in school,” read a statement on the health department’s website.

South Africa was moved to alert level 1 on Monday with an easing of restrictions on gatherings, the sale of alcohol and curfew. However, there remains a serious threat of a third wave of Covid-19 infections.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his address to the nation on Sunday evening: “The easing of restrictions should not be viewed as a reason to abandon precautions. The threat of a third wave is constantly present, as is the threat of yet more new variants.”

Epicentre Health Research regional manager Johan van den Berg says rapid tests are not widely available, but they could be a quick and perfect solution to increase testing.

“The rapid tests could definitely help, we are going to be doing a validation study soon to determine their accuracy. With the PCR tests, there is a time delay, you need to send it to the lab. With the antigen test, it is rapid and you could have results within an hour or two,” he said.

How rapid Covid-19 tests work. Graphic by Keagan le Grange.

The differences between PCR, antigen and antibody testing

Currently, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are the “gold standard” or the most common way that global healthcare systems are testing citizens for Covid-19. These tests require a swab from the back of your nose or throat as a sample which is then sent to a laboratory. This process can take hours and requires sophisticated lab equipment and technicians.

Antigen tests — often referred to as rapid tests — do not require a laboratory for results of a Covid-19 test. A throat swab is mixed with a solution that unleashes specific viral proteins specific to the coronavirus. It can be done in a clinic, doctor’s office or hospital. Turnaround time for results is usually quick and can take up to 30 minutes.

Antibody test kits analyse blood to detect Covid-19 antibodies that are formed by the immune system in response to a past infection with the virus. They are useful in picking up evidence that a person had the virus even if they were asymptomatic.

According to Epicentre Health Research, a rapid Covid-19 antibody test can help you:

  • Find out if you have ever had Covid-19 in the past
  • Find out if you currently have a Covid-19 infection
  • If you need to have a very quick test to determine your Covid-19 status
  • Found out if you have possible immunity to the coronavirus

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