Coronavirus Multi-ministry Taskforce update

More private clinics, labs will be able to do PCR tests

Boosting capacity in private sector will spur competition, increase availability of supplies

Enhancing the accessibility of PCR tests is a critical part of Singapore's strategy against Covid-19 as it moves towards phase three.
Enhancing the accessibility of PCR tests is a critical part of Singapore's strategy against Covid-19 as it moves towards phase three.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

More private clinics, laboratories and other healthcare providers will be able to administer Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for the public, apart from some 600 that are currently approved to conduct these tests, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

Beefing up testing capacity in the private sector will generate competition and increase the availability of supplies, he added.

"And by doing so, we will ensure that the price they are offered (at) will be competitive, and that will reflect the true cost of the test," said Mr Gan, co-chair of the Multi-ministry Taskforce tackling Covid-19, at a virtual press conference.

From Dec 1, more people will be able to take these PCR tests, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced yesterday. Any company or individual who needs a PCR test can procure the service from approved providers.

Currently, PCR tests are only for members of the public with Covid-19 symptoms, or who need to meet specific testing requirements, such as for pre-departure testing if they are travelling, or if they are workers who need to undergo rostered routine testing.

PCR testing, which requires skilled laboratory technicians to process samples, is the gold standard in terms of accuracy. But they are more costly and take slightly longer to process than other options such as antigen rapid tests or breathalyser tests.

Currently, a PCR test here is estimated to cost around $200.

The procured PCR tests will not be subsidised, and those who seek these tests at private providers will have to bear the cost, said MOH's director of medical services Kenneth Mak.

But the authorities are working with various laboratories and service providers to further reduce the cost of PCR tests, he added.

MOH said that enhancing the accessibility of PCR tests will allow Singapore to support a larger range of needs as the country resumes more economic and community activities.

This is also a critical part of Singapore's strategy against Covid-19 as it moves towards phase three of its reopening, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, co-chair of the task force, said yesterday.

  • $200

    Estimated cost of a Covid-19 PCR test currently. The procured PCR tests will not be subsidised, and those who seek these tests at private providers will have to bear the cost.

As for antigen rapid tests, Mr Gan said the authorities are continuing to use them in pilot runs of pre-event testing, which will enable more large-scale and higher-risk activities to resume in a safer manner.

Pilots runs were conducted at the Singapore International Energy Week and the One Championship mixed martial arts events last month, among others.

Antigen rapid tests can give results more quickly, are cheaper and are easier to administer than PCR tests, although they are slightly less accurate. It is not known how much they will cost.

A pilot scheme for karaoke establishments and nightclubs that will kick off by January will require them to ensure customers test negative for Covid-19 within the past 24 hours via a PCR test or an antigen rapid test.

Asked if the cost of antigen rapid tests can be lowered, Mr Gan said the authorities are in discussions with labs and suppliers on whether the pricing can be fine-tuned.

"But also it's an issue relating to volume. I would imagine that with more testing being applied, with the volume being driven up, the pricing can probably come down somewhat," he said.

But there are also significant costs involved in setting up testing facilities, besides the cost of the test itself, he added, and the authorities are trying to establish what kind of set-up for antigen testing will be more efficient and cost-effective.

Associate Professor Mak added that Singapore is working with various companies to bring in more antigen rapid tests. The capacity of the tests will also grow in tandem as pilot runs of pre-event testing are being expanded, he said.

The authorities are also working through the processes that should be in place for the use of antigen rapid tests at events, ranging from smaller events like weddings to Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) events.

"We hope to be able to extend the scale of events for which pre-event testing can be provided using these antigen rapid tests," said Prof Mak.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2020, with the headline 'More private clinics, labs will be able to do PCR tests'. Print Edition | Subscribe