Airports overseas use a rapid COVID antigen test to screen passengers, yet we’re still frustratingly out of step, writes Michael Collins
Sunday Independent Opinion Piece
Published 6th December 2020
Over the course of three days this week I took three flights in Europe, flying into airports in Paris, Vienna and Hamburg. Some might say that I was being behaving in a dangerous manner, and posing a COVID-risk to others. Quite the contrary.
At the time of writing, I can prove that I am free of the virus, which is probably not the case for almost everyone reading this article today. I was tested for the virus in each of the three airports, and because I took a rapid antigen test, I received my clear results within minutes. As an extra precaution I also took a PCR test in Dublin before departing on this trip.
In Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport I took the antigen test at no cost in Terminal 2E, it is free to all departing passengers. In Vienna Airport again, I took an antigen test at the check-in area, at no cost and boarded a COVID free flight to Hamburg. All crew and passengers were tested prior to boarding the Austrian Airlines flight.
Travel and business is taking place in mainland Europe, but not here. Ireland is out of step.
I was not bringing the virus with me as I walked out the door of the airport terminals in Paris, Vienna and Hamburg. No passenger arriving at an Irish airport could provide such confidence. This is because, in Ireland, we are using the wrong test.
The test used in Ireland, called the PCR, has a sensitivity level of 97-98%. It is the gold standard test, but it is slow and expensive. The PCR is designed for hospitals and medical settings, but makes little sense in an airport.
At Dublin Airport, it is offered for costs ranging from €129 with results in 24-48 hours, and €99 with results available the next day. This means that if a person arrives in Dublin and decides to take the best available test, it will be next day before they know if they are positive or negative. In the meantime, they will have travelled from the airport to home or a hotel. So, although the PCR test has the highest sensitivity, it is not fit for purpose in the travel and tourism industry.
In contrast, the rapid antigen test is designed for screening, at an airport, at a conference, or anywhere one needs a reliable and inexpensive test, with quick results. With a sensitivity level of 93%, it is marginally less-effective than the PCR. However, its speed at delivering results, married with its substantially lower cost, makes it a more suitable test for tourism and hospitality in Ireland.
I took a rapid antigen test in the Canary Islands two weeks ago. It cost €10 and I received my results in 15 minutes. Currently all hotels in the Canaries require a negative COVID test certificate from their guests at check-in. This simple practice enables their hotels stay open, and allows people enjoy holidays and conferences in relative safety. The same procedure should be available at every hotel and conference room in Ireland, but instead, we took the brutal step of shutting down the industry.
Think about all the weddings, events and conferences that have been cancelled unnecessarily. Instead, we could offer a rapid antigen test at the gate of the wedding chapel, or hotel. A negative result? Come on in. A positive result? Isolate and get a PCR.
Some may argue that the provision of a less-sensitive COVID test may lead to people having a false sense of security, which would facilitate the spread of the virus. It’s a fair point, but we must balance the drawbacks of a marginally less-effective test against the obvious benefits of increased testing in a seemingly-well population. Many more cases of the virus would be detected in people who were asymptomatic.
The European Commission echoed this point in its 18 November recommendation on the use of rapid antigen tests for the diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 infection. It said “rapid antigen tests can offer a significant advantage over RT-PCR tests in terms of simplicity of equipment needed, lower demands of highly skilled operators, price and timeliness of results, by providing health services with easy to use and rapid results which will also help to relieve the pressure on healthcare systems”.
On the point of using a testing system that was marginally less sensitive, the Commission said “the risk of not detecting all cases or risk of false negative results is counter-balanced by the timeliness of results and the possibility of recurred testing of initially negative individuals”.
It is important to note that I am not advocating the use of rapid antigen tests instead of the normal measures that have been promoted by the government; I am advocating the rapid test to be used alongside those precautions. I am also not advising against the PCR test. There is a time and place for the PCR. Airports are designed to screen passengers. Rapid antigen testing or screening is appropriate at airports.
It means that, yes, you can have a wedding or conference, but you should still wash your hands often; avoid shaking hands and other unnecessary contact; and very-importantly, keep the room well-ventilated.
Recently I was at a travel conference in the south of Spain and that is how it operated: rapid testing, with mask-wearing and social distancing. Participants got their business done, safely.
Proponents of the Irish system will argue that we have one of the lowest infection rates per thousand in Europe, but that is not necessarily something we should be proud of. Those figures take no account of lives lost as a result of shutting down entire industries (e.g. travel and hospitality) and bankrupting people’s businesses (travel agents). They don’t count the numbers who have died because of the lockdowns.
In Europe, life and business continues, with protocols and sensible balanced restrictions. That should be our goal, not a ranking on a league table that is based on faulty and incomplete data.
Set aside thoughts of the COVID vaccine; rollout is many months away. At present, the most significant means of restoring Ireland’s rich economic and social way of life, and travel is the rapid antigen test.
Michael Collins is Founder and Managing Director of TravelMedia.ie, a Dublin-based communications company specialising in PR services in the global travel industry. www.travelmedia.ie