Behind the scenes part one: Testing for coronavirus


Dr Alexandra Bernhardi

Guest Columnist

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While the community does their bit and follows the new rules of social distancing and trying to adapt to a changed economy and a changed everyday life - lot of things are happening behind the scenes in the medical field. Scientists are busy working on three different streams - which are  testing, treatment and vaccination. 

Here is a quick overview of the current and future types of tests:

  1. Currently we are using tests that include swabbing the nose and the throat of people showing symptoms of infection and then detecting particles of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19 disease). This needs to be done in pathology laboratories and therefore takes a couple of days. However, it is pretty accurate and reliable in detecting the virus at an early stage.

  2. Then there is a new “rapid blood test” that the TGA has just approved. It is expected that it will come into circulation shortly, however at the time of writing this article I am not aware of any definite official information.

    A finger prick would be required to obtain 2 drops of blood from a patient which will be swiped on a little device, which gives you the result within 15 to 30 minutes. This test relies on antibodies made by the patient in response to the virus, it does not detect the virus itself. Xavier Lawrence, CEO of MD Solutions, a company distributing the kits (obtained overseas), states that the test has more than 96.9 percent sensitivity (true positive rate) and 99.4 percent specificity (how well a test identifies patients who do not have a disease) at 5 days of the disease.

    However, president of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia, Dr Michael Dray, says the rapid test has a fundamental limitation, as patients may only make antibodies 7 to 12 days after they first become sick . Therefore, doctors cannot rely on these rapid tests early in the disease, he warns. However, the tests might play a role later on to identify people who are currently deemed immune against the circulating COVID-19 strain.

  3. The Australian Government has also released more funding to develop a simpler Australian coronavirus pathology test using locally manufactured reagents and a different chemistry to current testing methodologies. According to Health Minister Greg Hunt, the goal is to conduct widespread testing for the diagnosis and clearance of the coronavirus. This is important especially in the development of Australia’s future strategy of how to get people back to normal life.

In any event, your doctor will determine which test to use should you develop any symptoms. If you are unsure if you fulfill the criteria to get tested for coronavirus, you can visit the healthdirect website or you can ring the coronavirus helpline 1800 020 080.

If you are unwell (and especially if you have other health conditions or you are older) it might be best to contact your usual GP and ask for a telehealth consultation.

It seems that all our combined efforts are achieving the goal to “flatten the curve” - so we can be carefully optimistic while doing the right thing and practicing social distancing for the time being.

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