Unlike countries such as Australia, UK and the US, rapid antigen testing has only recently been approved for use in New Zealand for the likes of businesses, healthcare providers and unvaccinated travellers. However, this is set to change in 2022 with the government looking to make testing more widely available to reduce the number of people with undiagnosed Covid.
Rapid antigen testing (RAT) has a faster turnaround than PCR testing with results available in 15 to 30 minutes. This type of test is currently required if you’re travelling domestically by plane or ferry, or leaving Auckland and is free for the core summer period.
RATs are not accepted for travelling overseas. If you plan to travel overseas, you will need to book a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test through your GP or a private travel clinic.
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What is a rapid antigen test?
Rapid antigen tests, also known as lateral flow tests, are cheaper and faster than a PCR test. However, they are also less accurate.
A rapid antigen test works a little differently from PCR tests, which are the type you can get at private or government-run testing clinics. Antigen tests look for proteins in the virus to detect its presence, while a PCR looks for the RNA material that tells the virus to produce these proteins.
A rapid antigen test is a lot easier, quicker, and cheaper to do on a practical level. You can even do it yourself at home as it doesn’t necessarily require a medical professional (the instructions are in the box.)
Pictured: TGA-listed and verified rapid antigen testing kits from Rapid Proof. Image: Supplied
Types of rapid antigen tests
There are two types of rapid antigen tests available in New Zealand: nasopharyngeal and front of nose swab.
Nasopharyngeal tests involve inserting a nasal swab into your nose to collect a sample from the nasopharynx (the upper part of the throat behind the nose). It is then twirled around a few times allowing the swab to collect a sample of the cells and fluids present to be analysed. The nasal swab needs to be inserted quite far to collect a good specimen for an accurate test result. Some people find nasal RATs extremely uncomfortable. But it’s all over in a few seconds.
Front of nose tests are much less invasive and can be performed by inserting the swab partway into one or two nostrils, rotating it for 10 to 15 seconds. This method is typically used for home testing.
Both tests detect the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19. Both tests are deemed to be equally effective at detecting the virus.
How much do rapid antigen tests cost?
Four rapid antigen tests have been approved by the government for use in New Zealand. These are free for government departments, public health agencies and aged care providers in high risk settings.
They are also free are free for unvaccinated domestic travellers using air, ferry transport or leaving Auckland during the core holiday period (until 31 January) who are required to have a negative RAT. Tests must be booked at a pharmacy and performed by a pharmacist.
Businesses wishing to test employees beyond mandatory community testing must pay for RATs themselves. As an example, Mainfreight paid between $10 to $12 a test in a recent trial involving 30 businesses.
Where can I get a rapid antigen test?
If you are enrolled with a health provider, you can get a rapid antigen test through your GP. Supervised tests are also available at selected pharmacies for unvaccinated domestic travellers over the age of 12 years and 3 months. You must be asymptomatic, that is, not exhibiting any symptoms of Covid when you take the test. If you are, you will need to have a PCR test instead.
A list of pharmacies that provide testing can be found on Healthpoint.
Pros and cons of antigen tests
- Less intrusive than a PCR test
- Tests are quick with results available in just 15 minutes
- Instructions are easy to follow
- Helps to prevent the spread ensuring life as normal can continue
- Currently free for certain groups and for unvaccinated travellers through selected pharmacies (this may change)
- Not accepted by most countries for international travel
- Currently only 4 approved testing brands available
- Delivery time can be vague
- Less accurate than a PCR test
- Demand is high and supply is low
- You will need a negative PCR test upon your return to New Zealand regardless of the country you are travelling to