The Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Rapid Testing (RTEAG) suggested over two months ago that antigen testing should be done twice a week on people engaged in “higher risk activities”.
The government told the public last week that people visiting bars, restaurants, and other indoor spaces should consider running antigen tests several times a week to limit the spread of Covid-19.
The recommendation was in the latest letter from Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan to Secretary of Health Stephen Donnelly on NPHET’s latest recommendations dated November 9th.
In its letter, the CMO noted that RTEAG recommended the use of antigen testing by individuals who regularly engage in higher risk activities “so that they should consider serial-based self-testing at least twice a week”.
It is understood that this is the first time that the Minister hears of the recommendation to conduct a self-test twice a week.
But minutes of a meeting of RTEAG held through Zoom and attended by the minister show that the group was discussing the suggestion of how often self-tests should take place on September 1st.
The protocol notes that the group agreed that “the recommended frequency for self-testing should be twice a week and self-administration”.
While the Minister of Health was present for most of the meeting with his advisor, the notes state that Donnelly left the meeting before discussing the frequency of self-tests.
However, sources speaking to The Journal said it would be imprecise to claim the minister sat on the recommendation for over two months.
The journal also asked the Department of Health about RTEAG’s discussion of regular self-tests that took place on Sept. 1, and why it took over two months for NPHET to approve the group’s recommendation.
In response, a spokesman said that RTEAG “can discuss specific issues in more than one meeting before making a recommendation to the minister”.
“RTEAG is continuously discussing and reviewing the use of rapid tests in a variety of environments,” it said in a statement.
“As you can see from the minutes, these discussions are shaped by ongoing research and evidence synthesis.
“The group is making recommendations for the ongoing review to Minister Donnelly, which will be informed by these ongoing research, evidence and data-gathering bodies.”
At the same meeting on September 1st, RTEAG also discussed the importance of a cost-benefit analysis of antigen tests for wider application.
The minister asked the group for advice on whether antigen testing should be “free to the public or for a small fee”.
He told the group at the meeting that antigen testing would be an additional tool in the fight against Covid-19 and said it would play an “important role … when society opens up completely”.
And he also asked whether the group would advise him on how the use of rapid tests at general practitioners and pharmacies as well as for use in schools can best be rolled out.
He asked to be sent a report on the mass use of antigen testing in connection with the Covid app, or whether it should be done geographically or by sector.
A source told The Journal that there has been a “massive enterprise” of evidence gathering and the development of a framework and modeling system for antigen testing in the past three months.
RTEAG has teamed up with Canadian researchers to correlate the functioning of rapid tests over a period of six months to ensure continuous monitoring of the application.
RTEAG’s director, Professor Mary Horgan, said on RTE’s News at One today that NPHET had recommended that people engaging in high-risk activities should perform two antigen tests three days apart.
She also said that antigen tests “are really good at detecting infectious people,” but acknowledged that a lot of logistical work would be required to expand their use.
The group previously looked at a number of questions in order to achieve this, including: the type of tests that should be used; how individuals would use tests; where and when tests should be used; and whether the antigen test results should be linked to the test and trace system via a new online portal.
Horgan also stated that the survey results initially showed that the general public had limited knowledge about how antigen tests work, but believed that this is changing now that more people are using them.
She said this could “change faster” if teaching materials were made available, and highlighted how people should be “put on teaching materials” like YouTube videos and FAQs when searching for antigen testing tutorials online.
“It’s an important part,” she says.
The HSE video about the antigen test (which can be seen here) is currently not listed on YouTube and cannot be searched on the platform.
Senior sources said RTEAG worked tirelessly to put antigen testing on the agenda, noting that the group recommended their use in certain situations seven months ago.
The Ferguson Report said that antigen testing should “complement” existing PCR testing programs and that with the increasing commercial availability of the tests, there is “increasing evidence” of asymptomatic antigen testing.
At the time, the group suggested that if the studies were successful, widespread rapid tests “could be available in all schools by September 2021”.
This week’s recommendation follows questions from opposition leaders about the pace of the government’s formal introduction of antigen testing.
In a speech in the Dáil this week, Labor leader Alan Kelly said: “It’s been a year since I brought up the subject of antigen testing. I’ve been taking them for a year because I have older parents. They are not a panacea, but they help. “
He asked the Taoiseach if antigen testing would be subsidized and asked the government to make them available free of charge by January 1st.
However, Stephen Donnelly said the tests won’t be free although they are subsidized.
This decision has even been criticized by ruling parties, including Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty, who said it shows that people are not trusted.
But Taoiseach Micheál Martin defended the move in the Dáil today, saying Ireland “can learn from the UK experience where the wider use of antigen testing has not gone according to plan”.
Despite the trend towards wider use of antigen testing, there is no evidence from the government that the hospitality system, which continues to rely on the Covid Pass, will be used.