JHTA backing rapid testing for COVID-19
The Holness administration is being urged by hotel interests to expand its approved regime on COVID-19 evaluation for travellers to include rapid tests that would be cheaper but less foolproof than the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) model that is currently used.
The pitch for the parallel strategy has been made by the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), as the country’s hospitality industry struggles to recover from a travel sector hit by coronavirus-related entry barriers and a recessionary global economy that has sapped appetite for flights and cruises.
“This will give us a faster turnaround and will free up the government labs and bring in private labs that have the resources,” JHTA President Omar Robinson said of the rapid antigen tests in an interview with The Gleaner Tuesday night.
Robinson was echoing sentiments in a media statement issued by the lobby on Tuesday afternoon in which he pressed the Ministry of Health & Wellness to increase the efficiency of testing owing to the spike in coronavirus cases locally.
Jamaica recorded 140 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, bringing overall infections to 3,323. There have been 36 related deaths.
Admitting that PCR tests were more accurate, the JHTA president lamented that they were expensive, had unwieldy and long turnaround times for results, and required an army of medical professionals and intensive investment in equipment.
The rapid antigen test produces results in 15 minutes at a cost of US$5 each.
Rapid tests, however, have a higher vulnerability to false negatives than PCRs, medical professionals agree.
“One such test is Abbott’s Binax Now COVID-19 antigen test. According to Abbott’s website, this rapid test delivers results in just 15 minutes with no instrumentation, using proven lateral flow technology with demonstrated sensitivity of 97.1 per cent and specificity of 98.5 per cent in clinical study,” Robinson said.
“These statistics show that the sensitivity of this test is as high and comparable to the PCR test.”
Robinson’s concern stems from the hefty sums the country has been forced to fork out for PCR testing.
“We have experienced the negative impacts of not having the required resources for effective testing, leading to a severe backlog in testing and the inability to provide results in a timely manner for effective contact tracing. Many of our active cases may have been the result of this gap,” he said.
Robinson believes that the adaptation of a parallel testing strategy, which would be similar to what is now being proposed in the USA is the direction to go.
The US government and Abbott Laboratories recently signed a deal for the delivery of 50 million BinaxNow rapid antigen tests.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued emergency use authorisation for the new test.
That the USA accounts for approximately 70 per cent of visitor arrivals to Jamaica is a source of worry for the JHTA. Americans are required to produce negative PCR tests in order to enter the island.
PCR tests are available in some cities but remain a challenge in others.
“This is where this new rapid test can be used to further mitigate the traveller risk. It seems more than reasonable that a dual testing strategy of both the PCR and an antigen test would be beneficial for the travel and tourism industry and should be sought and implemented as soon as possible for Jamaica,” said Robinson.