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Coronavirus: Airlines call for rapid Covid tests to be used for international travel

Airlines are calling for rapid Covid tests to be used as standard for international travellers to ‘reopen’ the industry.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) union has published research claiming that using rapid tests could work as well as a 10-day quarantine policy.

And it said the cost and time required to use proper lab-based PCR tests to test travellers would keep the holiday industry on its knees.

A family of four could face a testing bill of £1,600 to use privately-bought tests, the IATA said, and it warned passenger numbers could fall by two thirds because of this.

Rapid swab tests, however, were significantly cheaper and faster to use and could help stem airlines’ losses by half, it suggested.

The IATA did not call for a total overhaul of the current policy of a 10-day quarantine with three tests, but wants the rapid swabs to be accepted as standard by officials.

But rapid tests, currently used in schools, care homes and offices around the UK, have been controversial because studies have shown they don’t work as well as the PCR swabs.

Generally speaking the quick tests are less sensitive, meaning it is more common for them to fail to detect when someone is infected with Covid, compared to lab tests. 

The IATA, which represents 290 major airlines including British Airways, TUI, Virgin Atlantic and Condor, commissioned the research from consulting firms Oxera and Edge Health.

The IATA, which represents 290 major airlines including British Airways, TUI, Virgin Atlantic and Condor, is calling for rapid tests to be made standard for international travellers this summer, instead of lab tests (Pictured: Condor planes on a runway in Dusseldorf, Germany)

Oxera’s Michele Granatstein said: ‘The choice of a rapid test would be a real boost to the global travel and international business community, and our research shows it can be as effective as other testing regimes and as effective as a ten-day quarantine.’

The report claimed sticking to PCR testing could slash demand for holidays by 65 per cent because of the huge cost involved, potentially costing more than £300 per person per trip just to follow the UK’s rules.

Allowing rapid tests to be used might reduce the losses to 30 per cent and allow more people to afford to travel, the IATA said. 

CEO at the union, Alexandre de Juniac, added: ‘We are already seeing rapid testing becoming commonplace in non-travel settings such as schools and workplaces. 

‘Extending its use to travel is a logical step. Science backs this up. 

In real world conditions, antigen testing is as effective as PCR testing in reducing the risk of cross-border transmission. 

LANCET STUDY SUGGESTS RAPID TESTING COULD CATCH 86% OF CASES IN TRAVELLERS

A study published in British medical journal The Lancet suggested that using rapid Covid tests on the day that someone travelled could spot 86 per cent of coronavirus cases.

The research was done by Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco, and based on a made-up scenario with 100,000 travellers.

Using estimates of how well tests work, the study estimated that testing someone with a PCR swab before they travelled would identify 88 per cent of people who could have travelled with an active Covid infection.

Doing the same thing with a rapid test on the day of departure would spot 86 per cent of infected people, it found.

The accuracy of the rapid test meant that the number of days people might be infectious but undetected fell by 32 per cent. 

By comparison, the more accurate – but more expensive and difficult – PCR test cut the number of infectious days by 36 per cent.

Dr Nathan Lo said: ‘Getting tested before you travel and often after you travel, can really reduce the risk of COVID with air travel,’ Skift reported.

But Dr Waleed Javaid, a professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, added: ‘But is it ok to travel if there is a 10 per cent chance of having an infectious person on the plane?’

‘Meanwhile the cost and bureaucracy of PCR tests adds huge burdens to families and businesses looking to travel. These are important considerations in preparing for a successful re-start.’

It is currently illegal to travel abroad for a holiday but people with reasons approved by the Government are allowed to fly.

They must follow specific rules when returning to Britain, however, and quarantine for 10 days and get tested twice after arriving in England, as well as once before.

During the quarantine, people are not allowed to leave the place they are staying, meet anyone else there or see visitors who didn’t travel with them. 

People must test negative for Covid before they board the plane and then again on the second and then eight days of the quarantine. 

Currently, all these tests must be PCR tests in which the nose and throat swab is posted to a laboratory to be examined with high quality machinery. It can take two or more days for a result to be returned, and the tests can cost over £100 a time.

The IATA is now calling for the Government to allow the use of rapid tests, which are cheaper and faster – taking around 15 minutes and costing £10-20.

The research produced by Oxera and Edge Health looked at past scientific studies of how well different rapid tests work.

Looking at the number of ‘infectious days’ a test could cover, the report said that PCR tests were more accurate but only by a small margin.

An infectious day was described as a day on which a traveller would have the virus if they were infected. It usually lasts in the body for up to two weeks in people who get symptoms. 100 per cent coverage would suggest that a test wouldn’t miss any cases if it worked properly.

The report said that a PCR test on arrival would cover 72 per cent of infectious days, because it was so sensitive that it would pick up the virus across most parts of someone’s infectious period, except a couple of days at the very start and end.

For a rapid test – referred to as an antigen test – this dropped to 63 per cent.

But the report said: ‘The differences in performance between PCR and antigen tests narrow further with the introduction of a post-arrival quarantine period. 

‘A PCR test three days after arrival screens 79 per cent of infectious days compared to 75 per cent for antigen, and PCR and antigen tests both screen 74 per cent of infectious days five days after arrival.

‘Importantly, an antigen test administered on departure screens 62 per cent of infectious days, a comparable proportion to a ten-day quarantine requirement (the current requirement in the UK) when quarantine compliance is taken into account.’

The report is published on the IATA’s website


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