Regular readers will be familiar with Dr. Michael Mina, the Harvard expert on antigen testing who pronounced himself feeling “sorry for Ireland” a few weeks back, after listening to Stephen Donnelly play down the benefits of antigen testing on the radio. Dr. Mina paid a visit to Dublin yesterday, presumably to see for himself the sorry state of the nation, and was (to the committee’s credit) afforded an opportunity to share his views with the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications, who are responsible, as their name suggests, for policy regarding international travel.
The following summary of proceedings is the work of Barry O’Halloran, from the Irish Times:
Dr Holohan has warned that cheaper, quicker antigen tests for the virus are only 50 per cent accurate, prompting the Government to bar their use for international travel.
Prof Mina dubbed the CMO’s assessment as “just inaccurate”, saying it failed to take into account that rapid tests were used to limit Covid’s spread, rather than to diagnose patients.
He explained that antigen tests identified people at their most infectious, the “population you want to exclude” from flights, big sporting occasions and other events.
The US academic told the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications Networks that getting results quickly was more critical to halting Covid’s spread than detecting it down to its last traces.
That’s quite a strong rebuke, by academic standards. The dispute, of course, revolves around the competing qualities of PCR and antigen tests. If you want to know whether somebody has Covid, then PCR testing is the gold standard. But if you want to know whether somebody is infectious, then antigen testing is just as good.
Dr. Holohan, and his colleagues in NPHET, are eager to catch and track and trace every single case of Covid in the country. Antigen testing, of course, will not do that, because it will tend to miss cases where the person is not shedding viruses themselves.
But isn’t that…. The whole point?
One of the most frustrating things this year has been to observe the way the whole purpose of the public health restrictions has been forgotten. These measures were introduced, after all, not to stamp out Covid 19, but to slow it down in order to protect the health service. Put simply, not catching every single case is not the end of the world. What we need to do is to catch people who are infectious, and limit their ability to infect others. Antigen tests can do that with a high degree of accuracy, and in super-fast time. That is why the rest of the world is using them.
Unfortunately, in Ireland, decision makers have caught the zero-covid virus, which appears to be almost infectious as Covid itself. What’s more, the PCR testing regime is not perfect either, in the case of international travel. As Mina told the committee, a person who takes a PCR test a few days before a flight might show up as covid negative, but become infected that evening, after their test, but before their flight. Antigen testing is not only an alternative – it can actually be complementary to PCR testing, especially for travel.
Countries that have gone down the zero covid route, the one Ireland is openly flirting with, have increasingly hit trouble when they try to emerge into normality again. Just this week, for example, we reported on the case of an Australian couple who have been prevented from seeing their own newborn baby for two weeks because of that country’s absurd an inflexible quarantine rules. In sport, the Australian Grand Prix, scheduled for November, is in doubt because the country will not make exceptions even for elite athletes who are covid tested once a week.
Antigen testing is a way for Ireland to avoid falling into that trap, and remaining closed unnecessarily. The Oireachtas should listen to Dr. Mina. Inviting him along was a very good start.