Pharmacists and retailers hope rapid antigen test shortages may ease in weeks

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Pharmacists and retailers expect the availability of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests to increase in coming weeks, after changed testing rules and disruption of supply over Christmas meant shelves were stripped of the sought-after product.

A prominent health expert said shortages of rapid antigen tests had been due to “extraordinarily bad management” by federal and state governments, and were the direct result of changes to testing requirements that should have been foreseen.

Pharmacies across Melbourne have placed signs on their windows alerting customers to a lack of rapid tests. Credit:Chris Hopkins

On Monday, most pharmacies struggled to keep up with the surging demand from the public for rapid tests, with many plastering signs outside their businesses to indicate they had none available.

Across Victoria, Facebook neighbourhood groups used word of mouth to share which businesses had fresh stock. Some retailers have begun offering buy now, pay later services such as Afterpay or Zip as payment methods to try to make the in-demand tests more attainable.

The shortages follow a surge in Omicron cases and changes to testing rules agreed to by national cabinet last Thursday, which mean anyone who is a close contact of a person with COVID-19 must use multiple rapid antigen tests even if they don’t have symptoms.

Rapid tests have also been in high demand by people travelling interstate, with Victorians required to return a negative rapid test before they are allowed into Queensland. This was also a requirement for entering South Australia before it was scrapped on Friday.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s Victorian president, Anthony Tassone, said he expected the situation to improve within the next few weeks. He said pharmacies were receiving a deluge of calls from the public, and recommended people check a business’s social media page before picking up the phone.

“There is expected to be an improved supply situation over the next couple of weeks but there are still going to be outages and shortages,” he said.

Pharmacies were trying their best to keep up with the demand, he said, but there had been “a perfect storm of changes to border entry requirements and the transition away from PCR testing as the mainstay, definitions of close contacts, public holidays [and] logistics”.

“It’s created a really challenging situation trying to keep up with demand,” he said.

Pharmacy chain Chemist Warehouse’s chief operating officer, Mario Tascone, said they were receiving half-a-million kits every second day, but these were selling out quickly.

He said a “really healthy delivery” would be arriving in Melbourne this weekend, and their online ordering system for rapid antigen tests — paused over Christmas — would likely be operational within the next two days.

“There is not a problem with the flow of stock into stores, it’s just the demand. You have to understand, 24 million people want a rapid antigen test, you can’t fill that pipe in a week,” he told radio station 3AW. He also said he believed the federal government should remove the GST on the tests to make them more affordable.

A spokesman for wholesale supplier Sigma Healthcare, which owns pharmacy brands Amcal and Guardian, said it had fast-tracked supply in the past week to respond to customer demand, and expected to have between 10 million and 13 million tests to distribute to pharmacies nationally this month.

Woolworths is also expecting a much larger order of stock to arrive, with a spokeswoman saying it would improve the availability of testing kits for Victorian as early as this week.

Several suppliers of tests also anticipated the shortages would be short-lived. But one company said the current crisis showed Australia needed to manufacture entire rapid antigen tests locally rather than relying on importing key components.

Michael Johnson is chief executive of Rhinomed, which has finished a trial at the Royal Children’s Hospital of an effective rapid antigen test for children. He said Australia’s shortages were being experienced globally, too, because of the surge in people contracting coronavirus, or wanting tests for Christmas and after New Year’s Eve events. “By the end of this month, there is not going to be an issue,” he said.

Mr Johnson said the real weakness the testing shortage had exposed in Australia was the lack of our ability to make rapid antigen tests. “They are easy to manufacture; it’s old technology,” he said.

SureScreen Diagnostics is a major international rapid antigen test supplier. Australian managing director Troy Stewart said the increased numbers of coronavirus cases being seen in the northern hemisphere would occur in Australia in a few months. “We need to prepare for our winter,” he said.

The Victorian government announced last week it had secured 34 million rapid tests. The first delivery — hundreds of thousands of tests — is expected this week.

Asked on Monday whether he expected supply to start catching up to demand in coming weeks, Health Minister Martin Foley said: “We certainly hope that that’s the case.”

Stephen Duckett, director of the Grattan Institute’s health program and a former secretary of the federal Department of Health, said the shortage in rapid antigen tests should never have happened.

“It’s just extraordinarily bad management. The demand for tests is most likely to be when we are most likely to catch up with friends and family, which is Christmas and New Year’s — it was entirely predictable. We don’t say we will have plenty of Christmas trees available two weeks after Christmas; you want them available before.”

In a report released in July last year, the Grattan Institute recommended the federal government be prepared to contain the spread of COVID-19 via rapid antigen testing.

Professor Duckett said national cabinet — and particularly the Commonwealth government, which had faced intense “political heat” over PCR testing delays in late December — had directly stimulated demand for rapid antigen tests by changing the rules around testing and isolating. “And in so doing, they shifted the cost onto the consumer.”

Professor Duckett said rapid antigen tests should be free to everyone because ultimately, it was cheaper than hospitalisations.

He said the uptake of rapid antigen tests by Australians shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the federal government if it had been paying attention internationally. “In the United Kingdom, the government has been supplying free rapid antigen tests since April.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned rapid antigen tests wouldn’t be subsidised for everyone as coronavirus cases continue to rise and the nation’s leaders finalise plans to make the screening tests available for free in vulnerable communities.

The Pharmacy Guild has opposed completely free access to rapid antigen tests while social service groups and unions have been pressuring the government to provide them at no charge to low-income families. Employer groups want them subsidised for workers.

Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the Prime Minister had failed to learn lessons from earlier in the pandemic and plan ahead with rapid antigen testing, and people should not be priced out of getting the tests.

“People who can’t afford them should be given them. That’s the truth of the matter. Because otherwise, the consequences are more dire,” Mr Albanese said on the Today show.

“The consequences of people not being able to be tested means that they will be out there in the community spreading the pandemic.”

With Rachel Clun

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