Coronavirus Multi-ministry Taskforce update

No positive cases so far from rapid testing at larger events

Covid-19 swab testing for people before boarding the World Dream cruise ship at Marina Bay Cruise Centre on Nov 6, 2020.
Covid-19 swab testing for people before boarding the World Dream cruise ship at Marina Bay Cruise Centre on Nov 6, 2020.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Rapid testing being conducted at larger events has yet to pick up any positive Covid-19 cases, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the Ministry of Health (MOH), said yesterday.

Singapore is piloting the use of these tests as an important part of its strategy in containing the coronavirus, which will allow for larger gatherings in phase three of its reopening, he said.

The antigen rapid tests give results within half an hour, enabling cases to be quickly detected and people who are positive to be isolated.

"These tests have not yet yielded positive results, but this is consistent with the current situation that we have, where the community prevalence rate in Singapore is very low," said Prof Mak at yesterday's virtual multi-ministry Covid-19 task force briefing.

"We've used these pilot (tests) as a means of validating our processes in terms of how we would organise testing to be done, either on site or off site before the event, with certificates issued, and then allowing entry into these events."

The tests were introduced in a pilot scheme late last month, and were tried out at events such as Singapore International Energy Week and the ONE Championship mixed martial arts events.

On the first day of Singapore International Energy Week, swabbers at a testing station took nasal swabs from 215 participants by inserting a swab stick about 2.5cm long up their nostrils and twirling it several times. Participants waited about 15 to 30 minutes for their results, which were sent via SMS.

The test, provided as part of the pilot scheme, was free of charge to participants.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said at the same briefing: "We will continue to pilot different workflows in various settings, such as at more business-to-business events, live performances, as well as spectator sports, and pre-event testing can form part of our strategy against Covid-19."

More types of rapid tests will also be tried out to expand the MOH's armoury, said Prof Mak, "so that there's a greater degree of choice and greater capacity that we will have in place to allow more of such testing to take place".

Antigen rapid tests are less accurate than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are used to confirm cases and remain the gold standard in Covid-19 testing.

Hence, any positive results that are picked up from antigen rapid tests will still have to be validated and confirmed using PCR tests, said Prof Mak.

Such rapid tests detect specific proteins - known as antigens - on the virus' surface while PCR tests detect the genetic material of the coronavirus.

As these antigen rapid tests will not pick up every single Covid-19 case, there is still a need to adhere to the same safe management measures such as mask wearing, safe distancing, group size and capacity limits at events.

Prof Mak also said the costs of rapid tests have come down, and they are looking to see if they can reduce the costs associated with having them conducted en masse.

"We are increasing the access to these tests, by decentralising and allowing more private test providers to make these tests available to members of the public," he said.

"These tests will not be subsidised and the cost would be paid for by those who seek these tests at these private labs."

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the Covid-19 task force, said at the briefing that Singapore is considering whether to make it mandatory for some events to provide antigen rapid tests.

"If and when we make pre-event or pre-entry testing a requirement for certain larger-scale activities to happen in phase three, then, indeed, the organisers of the events can avail themselves to the antigen-testing protocols that are already available in the market at that time," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2020, with the headline 'No positive cases so far from rapid testing at larger events'. Subscribe