A run on rapid antigen tests in chemists and supermarkets across Australia has left governments scrambling for supplies as they seek to change the way people get tested for Covid.
Rapid antigen tests (RATs) have been available in the US, Europe and parts of Asia since March this year, but the Australian testing regime has relied on the more expensive PCR tests as its program’s cornerstone.
Now, as case numbers surge and the system comes under increasing strain, state and federal governments have sought to promote RATs as an intermediate step before people join a queue to be tested.
In response RATs have been flying off shelves in supermarkets and pharmacies, raising concerns about a lack of supply.
Jini Maxwell, a games journalist from Melbourne, said that while they had been able to easily find tests a week and a half ago, they had struggled to find any since Christmas “anywhere”.
“There are two chemists near me that I’ve been checking every day that have been sold out for the past three or four days,” they said.
Maxwell said that when they finally found a chemist who did have them on Thursday, the shelves were bare by the time they arrived and they were told to come back in an hour while the shop restocked.
“I think it represents another massive failure of the federal government to provide adequately for the Australian people during a two-year pandemic,” they said.
The Australian Medical Association vice-president, Dr Chris Moy, said the lack of availability amounted to a “market failure”.
“You can’t get them. And people really don’t have a reasonable idea about when to use them,” he said. “In a public health response, the government has to ensure that, if they’re going to rely on the private system, the private system is supported so there isn’t a market failure when we really need it.”
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia national president, Trent Twomey, said though “tens of millions” of tests are on their way to Australia, they will probably not be available until late January.
“This transition [from a focus on PCR tests to RATs] will take weeks, not days. We will have regional outages,” Twomey said. “There are millions coming in the pipeline, there’s tens of millions coming. The issue is what happens in the next fortnight.
“We’re airfreighting what we can from overseas, and they will come into play in the next days and weeks. But the big shipments, the ones that are the orders placed with manufacturers, will take several weeks.”
Though it is unclear how governments will distribute the supplies they are buying, Twomey said by late January RATs should be widely available.
“They’ll be everywhere,” he said. “Those supplies coming towards the end of January will be available through supermarkets and pharmacies, and the supplies available in the next few days will be available through community pharmacies.”
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, sought to reassure Australians on Wednesday. He said RATs were different to vaccines as there were many more manufacturers worldwide and governments had been working to secure supplies.
These include the 34m additional tests announced by the Victorian state government and the 30m additional tests ordered by New South Wales.
As these bulk orders will take time to fill, the prime minister said the private sector would fill the gap, describing the tests as a “precious commodity” in managing the spread of Covid-19.
“When you start providing tests through other methods, then you need to be very clear about where and who so they can estimate how many stocks I need in my pharmacy or supermarket,” Morrison said.
However, the tests will not be available in Western Australia, where RATs remain banned, despite calls from the Pharmacy Guild’s state branch for this ban to be overturned.
Only the state’s chief health officer, Andy Robertson, can overturn the ban, which can see individuals fined up to $20,000 and companies up to $100,000 for administering them.
Coles and Woolworths confirmed in separate statements they were experiencing a surge in demand, with Woolworths limiting customers to 10 kits a purchase, but both said stocks were large enough to cope.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) maintains a list of approved rapid antigen tests for use within Australia.
Most approved RATs are sourced from manufacturers in China, the US and Germany and have to be repackaged into TGA-approved packaging before they can be distributed within Australia. This is to ensure the packaging language is in English and the instructions are clearly explained in a way that ensures they can be used at home.
Twomey said industry does not “play favourites” when it comes to supplying different states and territories, but can only quickly respond to changes where governments liaise with industry about changes to policy ahead of time.
“Those you don’t hear from, you can’t work with,” he said.