LONDON/JERUSALEM – The U.K. and Israel are overhauling their COVID-19 testing policies as governments seek to reduce the burden on laboratories and struggle with tight supplies of test kits amid soaring infection rates fueled by the omicron variant.
This time last year, vaccines offered hope that the pandemic might be over by now. But omicron has brought new challenges, including overloading public health systems, even if — as many scientists say — it leads to less severe illness than the earlier delta variant.
Demand for testing kits has squeezed supply. Last week, queues formed outside pharmacies in Spain's capital, Madrid, in what has become a common scene since omicron began driving up infections. Madrid, where a conservative government has put supporting the hospitality sector at the top of its agenda, is opting for increased testing and no restrictions on socializing.
A surge in demand for tests has led to issues in the U.K. and Italy. The U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said that 100,000 more PCR booking slots per day had been made available since mid-December and that capacity had been doubled to 900,000 PCR and LFD test kits a day.
People in England who test positive for COVID-19 on rapid lateral flow device (LFD) tests will not need to confirm their results with a follow-up PCR test if they are not showing symptoms, the UKHSA said Wednesday.
A record-high one in 15 people had COVID-19 in England in the week ending Dec. 31, estimates published by the Office for National Statistics showed on Wednesday.
"While cases of COVID continue to rise, this tried-and-tested approach means that LFDs can be used confidently to indicate COVID-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation," said agency Chief Executive Dr. Jenny Harries.
PCR tests are processed in a lab and can be used to determine which variant a person has, while an LFD can be used at home and gives an indication of whether someone is infectious within half an hour.
Virologists and experts said the move was logical given the incredibly high infection rates, as long as LFD supplies were sufficient, as the tests identify the majority of people who are at their most infectious and need to isolate.
"There is really no need to confirm (a positive LFD test) with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere," said John Edmunds, a professor of mathematical modelling of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
But authorities will have less data about the spread of different variants, as PCR swabs are used for genotyping and sequencing.
'Supersonic' rise in cases
Israel has changed its quarantine and testing policies as part of efforts to save resources and ensure continued protection for vulnerable people.
PCR tests will be earmarked for people age 60 and over or with weak immune systems, while those at lower risk will be checked with rapid antigen tests, the health ministry said.
"This is a significant change intended to identify risk populations sooner, intervene and prevent severe disease," ministry director-general Nachman Ash told a news conference.
Until now, those exposed to confirmed COVID-19 carriers have been required to take official tests. If found to be positive, they must submit to police-enforced quarantine rules.
The United States reported nearly a million new coronavirus infections Monday, the highest daily tally of any country in the world and nearly double the previous U.S. peak set a week earlier.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday backed its week-old guidance for people seeking to end their COVID-19 isolation at five days, adding that they could take a rapid antigen test if they want to and can access one but that it is not a requirement.
The agency had been pressured by health experts to institute a test requirement after it cut in half its guidance last week for people to isolate after a COVID-19 infection, from 10 days to five.
Spain, Portugal and the U.K. have also slashed the mandatory isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19 amid fears that lengthy quarantines could paralyze their economies.
Ireland will drop its requirement for vaccinated arrivals to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test and will return to seeking proof of vaccination or recent infection upon entry, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said.
In France, a "supersonic" rise in infections is set to continue in the coming days and there are no signs of the trend reversing, a government spokesman said Wednesday.
Nearly 294 million people are reported to have been infected with the coronavirus globally, and more than 5.8 million have died, according to a Reuters tally.
Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in central China in December 2019.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.