‘A scramble’: how Australian governments turned from resisting to embracing Covid-fast antigen testing | Coronavirus

In the last few weeks, Allison Rossiter, CEO of Roche Diagnostics, one of the first companies to pass an approved rapid antigen test in Australia, has witnessed a surge of interest from state governments.

South Australia, which until a week ago had banned the use of the tests, is among their new customers. The same is true of Western Australia, which placed an order with the company this week despite the tests still being banned in the state.

“We have massive orders for rapid antigen testing for Western Australia,” WA Premier Mark McGowan said on Wednesday. “We expect to have 8 million by February 5th, and we expect to get more after that.”

This has not always been the case. Interviews with manufacturers and suppliers of rapid antigen testing reveal a frustration over the amount of resistance to their products in Australia until quite recently.

“The response from the government has generally been ‘yes, we will look at it’ or ‘maybe in the new year’, but so far there has been no critical momentum,” Dean Whiting, CEO of Pathology Technology Australia, a group, representing suppliers of rapid antigen testing, the Guardian Australia reported.

“There have been some confusing market announcements at times, and I think there is a level of frustration.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, Australia has relied heavily on PCR testing as a key board in the country’s Covid testing and tracking system. More reliable than rapid testing and cheaper for states to operate because it is subsidized by the Commonwealth, it has meant that providers of the faster forwarding tests were de-prioritized in the Australian market while demand in Asia, Europe and the US increased.

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“In the beginning, we had no idea whether fast tests would fly in Australia at all,” Rossiter said.

“There was a lot, I would not say misinformation, but lack of information about the tests, or how they differed from PCR tests, and so it was hard to know.

“I do not know if it was necessarily from the government itself, but I think the experts in the medical profession were certainly dubious.”

The pathology industry, which has been a major economic beneficiary of PCR testing, lobbied strongly against the use of the tests. During the pandemic, the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia, the body representing pathologists, issued several statements warning against their use.

In October last year, it directly discouraged “against the widespread use” of the tests, an attitude which it confirmed as late as July.

Although Roche has been well placed to fill most orders, reports of market shortages at pharmacies and malls as well as accusations of price spills point to a broader view of the industry that the Australian market was not worth investing in until quite recently. .

Some companies, such as Brisbane-based Ellume, have not even bothered to register their products with the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia and instead send their kits – which they produce around 100,000 of every day – directly to the United States.

“Part of the challenge for manufacturers is how much Australian product you bring in and keep when you’ve had state governments until very, very recently that do not support rapid testing and sometimes even reject it,” said John Kelly, CEO of test company Atomo, said.

“I suspect that shares in Australia at the moment are probably smaller than what is required to do the job, and that is largely due to a lack of commitment, planning and preparation to get ready for this.

“I am always wary of judging a pandemic with hindsight because things are unpredictable, but the governments here have certainly been resistant to point-of-care tests from the start and there has been resistance in public health because of the diagnostic advice coming from the pathology sector. “

It was not until August, when the outbreak in New South Wales saw the government switch to rapid tests to keep some industries running, that the college admitted that ‘governments and public health authorities fighting localized outbreaks may have to use RAT’ is for monitoring tests in defined circumstances ”.

It was during this period that Rossiter’s company, Roche, began circulating a white paper to the state health authorities in an attempt to push the theory that the tests were not safe for use in Australia, and to encourage departments to think of a future that would require. more widespread testing than PCR allowed.

“It was a gamble, but I did not want us to be on the back burner,” Rossiter said. “Australia is obviously a million miles from anywhere and I did not want to be caught if the situation changed.

“As it happened, the sudden increase in cases due to Omicron and what coincided with the Christmas period, at one time, and now you have a situation where there is a bit of a turmoil from the governments.”

Part of the problem has been the slow pace of approvals with TGA. In September, TGA chief John Skerritt admitted it had been deliberate while the regulator was waiting for a “signal” from the federal government.

“We say to companies, submit your data, show us, but we can not formally make an approval decision until we get a signal from the government,” Skerritt said at the time.

“It’s a decision for the government. Firstly, when they feel it is an appropriate time, it is to conduct such tests. But secondly, we need to have the tests that are actually ready to go. , and designed to be used by non-professionals. ”

That signal eventually came when Federal Health Secretary Greg Hunt said he wanted rapid tests to be made available from November.

But other vendors are expressing frustration that the approval process remains slow, and lack of foresight from governments about the possible need for quick tests as the number of cases increased after the economy opened up.

In the early stages of the extended lockdown caused by the Delta variant, the NSW government issued a tender to suppliers of the tests.

The offer was announced in late July and was limited to procurement for the state health network, meaning wider distribution was not considered.

The Guardian understands that the government eventually selected four suppliers as part of the tender, but several companies bidding during the tender were never contacted after submitting their bids.

“It was a waste of time,” said the head of a company that did not bid as part of the offer. “They obviously did not look beyond their nose.”

NSW Health did not directly respond to questions about the offering, but said the government had “committed to making rapid antigen testing available to NSW residents early next year to increase the Covid-19 health response across the state”.

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