Rapid antigen testing

Last updated: 2 December 2021

Rapid antigen tests, often abbreviated ‘RAT’, are generally taken with a front of nose swab and detect the presence of specific proteins on the outer portion of the virus, such as the spike protein.

This is different from the RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction) test currently widely used in New Zealand which detects genetic material called RNA. Samples used for RT-PCR tests are collected with nasopharyngeal swabs, a combination oral and nasal swab (oropharyngeal anterior nares), or saliva.

RATs require a higher quantity of the virus to be present in the sample than other COVID‑19 testing methods.  As a result, RATs are less sensitive at detecting cases, especially in asymptomatic people or people who are early in their infectious period. A positive result in any RAT requires a confirmation test by RT-PCR swab undertaken by a healthcare professional.

The advantage of RATs is that they give a result quickly (often in less than 15 minutes), which assists with rapid risk assessment and reduces the amount of time a positive individual is active in the community. RATs can be conducted in a laboratory, a health setting, or in the community e.g., at home.

A point of care RAT is one that is performed at or near the place where a specimen is collected and interpreted, ideally under the supervision of a healthcare professional, for example at GP clinics, pharmacies, school health clinics, and long-term care facilities.

Rapid antigen tests in New Zealand

The Ministry has supported the use of rapid antigen tests as a surveillance tool in four approved pilot programmes to support our public health response:

  1. Auckland metro hospitals in areas deemed as ‘high-risk’ settings to:
  1. detect cases early in patients presenting symptoms of COVID-19
  2. manage hospital capacity
  3. ensure the safety of visitors
  4. inform clinical decision making.
  1. Point of arrival testing of participants in the self-isolation pilot in Auckland (as part of the Reconnecting New Zealanders work).
  2. Returnees in managed isolation facilities as part of the Government’s planned shorter stay in MIQ facilities. A rapid antigen test will be utilised as part of this new process, carried out on day 7 before a person leaves the facility if the result of the day 5/6 PCR test is not available, followed by a PCR test on day 9 during their self-isolation at home.
  3. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has been trialling the use of rapid antigen testing with 29 businesses to provide additional testing options to support the health and safety of their workforce. This is in addition to testing required by the Ministry under the Required Testing and Health Orders. 

The information from these pilots will inform the evidence base and decisions around wider roll-out of rapid antigen testing to the public, more businesses and eventually to the community and general public. 

Phased implementation of rapid antigen testing to other settings and a wider group of users 

The Ministry is taking a phased roll-out to rapid antigen testing to ensure that public health surveillance and business health and safety measures through testing are appropriate. We also need to ensure that infrastructure related to reporting of rapid antigen tests is in place across settings. The approach will need to be supported by clinical and public health advice. 

Importing rapid antigen tests

There are currently three rapid antigen tests authorised for import and supply under the COVID-19 Public Health Response 2020 (Point of Care) Order (the Order). These have been evaluated by Environmental Science and Research (ESR) and approved for supply to the Ministry of Health for use by authorised users. There may be an increase in the range of rapid antigen tests available in the future.

These are the three tests approved for import and supply in New Zealand by the Ministry of Health

Product Name

Manufacturer

Product Code

SARS-CoV-2 Rapid Antigen Test (SD Biosensor) (Nasal)

SD Biosensor (South Korea)

09365397043

09445323077

PanBio COVID-19 Ag Rapid (Nasal)

Abbott Rapid Diagnostics Jena GmbH (Germany)

41FK21
41FK51
41FK91
41FK71
41FK81

CareStart COVID-19 Antigen (Nasal)

Access Bio Inc (United States of America)

7006576 (20 pack)
7009998 (7 pack)
7006586 (20 pack)
7009997 (2 pack)
7006585 (1 pack)

The Order which took effect on 22 April 2021 prohibits the importation and use of rapid antigen tests in New Zealand without the authorisation of the Director General of Health. The intent of this prohibition is to prevent testing for COVID-19 by unverified or unaccredited methods or tools, monitor the quality of devices in use, and to prevent the misinterpretation of any results.

Applications for the importation and use of rapid antigen tests can be made via the Epidemic notice and Orders section.

Rapid antigen tests for business

A rapid antigen testing (RAT) guide for businesses is available below. These documents will continue to change as we gather feedback and improve processes.

The Ministry of Health has been part of MBIE’s rapid antigen test trial with businesses, which has included listening to feedback and providing public health advice.

From 1 December, following the completion of the business trial, MBIE are handing management of the next phase of the roll out to the wider business sector to MoH.

Rapid antigen tests are an option for businesses in their response to COVID-19. Workers can continue to be tested under current arrangements.

Distribution channels

From 1 December those businesses who choose to use RATs for surveillance testing will be able to directly source approved RATS from the following authorised suppliers (all are nasal swabs):

  • Roche Diagnostics NZ Ltd             
  • Abbott Rapid Diagnostics             
  • Pantonic Health (Australia) or Arrotex Pharmaceuticals (NZ) Limited        
  • EBOS Group Ltd

From 15 December, small to medium businesses who do not wish to source RATs directly from authorised suppliers can purchase them from a local distributor. The Ministry is currently working through the details of supply.

We recommend that businesses trial different tests before committing to buying one in bulk as there are differences in processes.

Staff management in the event of a positive RAT result

We are currently working on guidance for businesses. This will include details on how to set up processes around staff management so that in the event of a positive RAT result not all staff necessarily need to be stood down. 

Cost of RATs

Business must pay for RATs themselves.

Key points about rapid antigen tests

RATs are not mandatory and won’t be suitable for everyone. It is up to businesses to choose whether they want to use RATs.

Rapid antigen tests offer:

  • a much faster turnaround than a laboratory PCR test (approx. 15 mins compared to 2-5 days)
  • an additional level of protection for a business’s workers, contacts, and customers.

Rapid antigen tests (RATS) are not:

  • as accurate at detecting COVID-19 as nasal and saliva PCR tests (a positive RAT result must be confirmed with a PCR test)
  • used for diagnosis of people with COVID-19 symptoms
  • a replacement for existing nasal and saliva PCR tests
  • mandatory for businesses
  • acceptable for mandatory surveillance testing under the Required Testing Order (RTO)
  • a replacement for vaccination. 

Health and Safety

Businesses who choose to use RATs need to follow Healthy and Safety guidance as outlined in the FAQs below.

For more information, contact [email protected]

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