Covid surge sets back confidence in rapid tests on travellers

The surge in Covid-19 infections and lockdowns across Europe has knocked aviation industry efforts to convince governments to move rapidly to testing travellers, says Iata.

Airline association Iata has been urging governments to introduce rapid pre-departure Covid tests for international air passengers, with Europe in the lead for their introduction as the sole international air market to show signs of recovery this summer.

But Iata director general Alexandre de Juniac said: “The new waves [of infection] are not facilitating our job.

“We have to bring additional data and to have an even more-robust testing proposal to convince health authorities and governments to replace quarantines.

“The major obstacle is to give solid confidence to governments that implement travel restrictions that we can implement a safe process – to guarantee that the test process is absolutely safe.”

De Juniac has argued for the use of antigen tests on travellers, which detect the molecules which stimulate an immune response to the virus, because they are faster and cheaper than the PCR tests requiring laboratory analysis.

However, existing antigen tests are less sensitive to detecting Covid-19, particularly in cases of asymptomatic infection.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in guidance on rapid diagnostic tests in September, noted: “The trade-off for simplicity . . . is a decrease in sensitivity.” It warned: “Do not use antigen rapid diagnostic tests for airport or border screening.”

De Juniac explained: “When we launched a proposal for pre-departure testing we said tests should meet criteria for sensitivity, cost and speed.

“Antigen tests meet the criteria of speed and cost, but not reliability. They are better than PCR tests for speed and cost but less than PCR for sensitivity.”

He added: “What has to be approved by health authorities and governments is both the test and the protocol for testing.

“Whatever type of test we talk about we have to have a safe process. We are pretty confident we will have health authorities recognise the process, but the process has to be safe.

“We are working with health authorities, with laboratories, to give confidence to governments to remove quarantines.

“It is a precondition to convince governments to open borders without a threat to their populations to re-import the virus.”

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