Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said that rapid antigen testing for Covid-19 will be rolled out in colleges and universities to allow students to safely return to campus next autumn.
The Department of Health published a report on the 1st of April which recommended widespread rapid testing systems for higher and further education campuses, especially student accommodation.
The report, commissioned by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, was compiled by the Covid-19 Rapid Testing Group which proposed that pilot schemes also be run in schools and some workplaces.
Speaking after the report’s release, Minister Harris said that four rapid-testing pilot schemes will be rolled out across four college campuses, which have not yet been announced.
“I want to get these pilots in place, get them in place quickly, so that we can learn from them and be ready for the new college year,” says Harris.
“It is an absolute priority of mine, and of Government, to make sure that students next year have a much better on-site experience than they had this year.”
“College is not something that’s meant to be done at the corner of a kitchen table or in a box room,” he stated.
Rapid antigen tests, also called lateral flow tests, work by identifying proteins on the Covid-19 virus.
They deliver results in about 20 minutes by placing the swab into a tube of liquid for reading instead of sending the sample to a laboratory.
Despite the speed and convenience of this form of Covid-19 testing it isn’t as accurate as laboratory tests, according to a review by medical research evaluators the Cochrane Collaboration published last week.
The authors of the review warned that “in people with confirmed Covid-19, antigen tests correctly identified Covid-19 infection in an average of 72% of people with symptoms, compared to 58% of people without symptoms.”
This of particular concern due to the fact that the B117 or British variant of the virus only displays symptoms in around half of the people infected with it, and has become the most dominant variant in Ireland.
Therefore a significant amount of asymptomatic people would test negative for Covid-19.
Despite their issues with accuracy, Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, has said that rapid antigen testing will add an “extra layer of protection” in the fight against Covid-19.
Vaccinations for healthy under-55s aren’t expected to begin until July or later, meaning that it’s unlikely that a significant amount of the country’s 235,000 students will be vaccinated by September or October.
This is why testing will still be necessary in autumn, and Professor Mills believes that people should be tested two to three times a week, in case they have a negative rapid test result, but are still incubating the virus.
The system is already in use in meat plants in Ireland and in other countries but Professor Mills said that “it is not being used as widely as it could in Ireland.”
“If it’s being done frequently it will be picked up. It will take infected people out of the system.”
HSE Chief Clinical Officer, Dr Colm Henry, told RTÉ that rapid testing plans will likely be finalised “in the next week or two.”
Jamie Mc Carron