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PCR testing remains integral, despite rush for RATs

Burnet Institute

19 January, 2022

Despite the rush for rapid antigen tests (RATs), PCR testing remains a key to understanding and controlling COVID-19, Burnet Deputy Director, Associate Professor David Anderson told ABC’s PM program.

He urged governments not to downgrade the reliance on PCR testing, which he said provides important insight into the evolving nature of the pandemic in Australia.

“PCR testing also gives us the ability to do sequencing and to get an idea of how much Omicron there is, and when a new variant comes in,” Associate Professor Anderson said.

“If we were doing primarily RAT testing last November-December, we wouldn’t have known that Omicron was in the country - and sadly we knew Omicron was here and the policymakers pretended that it was not going to be a problem, so we’ve ended up in a mess anyway.

“But when the next variant comes, as it inevitably will, if we aren’t doing PCR, we won’t know.

“We need to continue to support doing large volumes of PCR testing and encourage people to take advantage of that.” - Associate Professor David Anderson.

He said despite the importance of PCR testing, the Omicron variant and subsequent surge in case numbers meant Australians needed far greater access to RATs so testing could be carried out at home.

“We know that PCR testing served us very well up until late last year, because there was enough capacity to test everyone who wanted a test and typically waiting times were not very long, ‘’ Associate Professor Anderson said.

“Most jurisdictions were getting test results back in a reasonable period of time, but now with the PCR system overwhelmed, we don’t have access to RAT tests - and even worse - sick people are travelling around trying to find RAT tests, it really couldn’t be any worse a situation.”

“The idea that people need to search for tests is completely wrong. We’re a wealthy country and we can afford to provide RATs to people.” - Associate Professor David Anderson.

Professor Anderson also said the mounting death toll over Summer showed the perils of waning vigilance among politicans.

“I wish I could say I was shocked, but I’m not shocked,” Associate Professor Anderson said.

“Certainly, disbelief that we could throw away the hard work of two years and the hard work, not not just of people who’ve been prepared to isolate when required and lockdowns etc, but especially of healthcare workers, who have been picking up after everyone for all this time.

“And that, against most expert advice, we would let it rip over Christmas and New Year when we knew people would socialise, when this was inevitable.

“There was never good evidence that the (Omicron variant) would be so mild, that letting it spread in the community would be a good thing. Certainly it’s a little bit milder than Delta, but what we knew for certain from the data from South Africa was that it would spread quickly.

“And this was an inevitable consequence of taking off all controls in some states.

“We’ve probably seen a peak in cases, how quickly it will come down remains to be seen. But we’re not near the peak for deaths yet, I’m afraid.”

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