COVID-19: Singapore pilots pre-event antigen rapid tests ahead of Phase 3, results within 15 mins

Wong Casandra
·Senior Reporter
·4-min read

WATCH: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong explains the government’s plan to use antigen rapid tests to screen participants of large-scale events

SINGAPORE — Singapore is piloting the use of antigen rapid tests prior to the start of large-scale and high-risk events to screen out attendees who are infected with the coronavirus, ahead of Singapore’s entry into Phase 3.

Attendees will be tested either at the event venue or at a separate testing facility, at no cost, during the pilot taking place till the year-end.

The tests are expected to return fairly accurate results within 15 minutes, which means event attendees can expect the entire process to end within half-an-hour, including time taken for registration and swabbing.

They will also be more comfortable to endure, compared to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, as a nasal swab will be used to take a sample from the lower part of the nose.

A few such pilots are already ongoing, said the Ministry of Health (MOH) on Tuesday (20 October), and from now until December, the government will be identifying selected events – such as wedding receptions, live performances, and sports events – to carry out the tests.

Where onsite testing is possible, the MOH said it will arrange with the event organisers to keep the pre-testing process as discreet as possible so as not to detract from the event itself. The testing may, for instance, take place in a function room on the side of a wedding.

Where tests are done offsite at the designated test centre, it may be offered a day before the event and participants who test negative will then obtain a certificate that is valid for 24 hours.

The negative result will be valid for 24 hours and must remain so until the end of the event or events. If not, attendees will not be allowed in. As such, daily testing will be required for multi-day events.

Individuals who have recovered within a recent enough window from pre-event testing, e.g. 180 days from their first PCR positive result, will be exempted from such requirements.

If participants test positive on the antigen rapid tests, they must self-isolate and obtain a referral form that they can use to obtain a free PCR swab at designated clinics.

Not as accurate as PCR tests

The deployment of these antigen rapid tests, which are faster and cheaper, will complement the ongoing use of PCR tests to confirm COVID-19 cases.

At a virtual conference chaired by the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce held on Tuesday, Health Minister and co-chair Gan Kim Yong said, “The PCR test is still the gold standard that yields highly accurate results but it takes time and the test may need to be taken one or two days in advance.

“We are exploring the use of antigen rapid tests for pre-event testing, which can return fairly accurate results quickly, and can be administered just before the event.”

The antigen rapid tests have been evaluated by the MOH and minimally meet the World Health Organization’s recommendation of at least 80 per cent for sensitivity and 97 per cent for specificity, said the MOH.

This means that they will be able to pick up at least 80 per cent of individuals who are infected with COVID-19 and will show a result of three per cent false-positives in healthy individuals, a lower accuracy rate compared with PCR tests.

Among the few who are infected, the MOH expect about 12 to 24 per cent to test false-negative while some cases may test positive even though they are not infected, said the MOH.

“For the former, as there is still a possibility that a COVID-19 positive case could slip through to attend the event, there is still a need for the same safe management measures to be put in place, including mask-wearing, safe distancing, group size, and capacity limits, to reduce the risk of transmission,” it added.

The ministry plans to complete pilot pre-testing within this stipulated period of time and to bring pre-event testing to the mainstream by the start of 2021.

“Pre-event testing pilots will enable the MOH to study pre-event testing processes and to identify a model which can be implemented more widely and allow more large-scale events to resume eventually,” it added.

The ministry also said that it would look into alternative modes of testing, such as those conducted via breathalysers, where they are ready for commercial production and are validated.

As part of a move towards Phase 3, authorities have also announced that checking in with the TraceTogether app or token will be mandatory at all widely visited venues, including restaurants, workplaces, schools, and shopping malls, by end-December.

Members of the public will not be able to enter these places by scanning SafeEntry QR codes with their phone cameras, or via the SingPass mobile app or barcodes on ICs.

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