COVID testing policy put under the microscope as Omicron sweeps world

By Alistair Smout and Maayan Lubell

LONDON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Britain and Israel are overhauling their COVID-19 testing policies as governments seek to reduce the burden on laboratories and struggle with tight supplies of kits amid soaring infection rates fuelled by the Omicron variant.

This time last year, vaccines offered hope that the pandemic could 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, whose conservative government has put supporting the hospitality sector at the top of its agenda, is opting for increased testing and no restrictions on socialising.

A surge in demand for tests has led to issues in Italy and Britain. The UK 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 on 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 a LFD can be used at home and gives an indication of infectivity 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 they 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 the authorities will have less data about the spread of different variants as PCR swabs are used for genotyping and sequencing.


Israel changed its quarantine and testing policy as part of efforts to save resources and ensure continued protection for vulnerable people.

PCR tests will be earmarked for people aged 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 on 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 they could take a rapid antigen test if they want to and can access one, but 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 to five days from 10.

Spain, Portugal and Britain have also slashed the mandatory isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19 amid fears that lengthy quarantines could paralyse economies.

Ireland will drop its requirement for vaccinated arrivals to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test and return to seeking proof of vaccination or recent infection upon entry, Prime Minister Micheál Martin said.

Nearly 294 million people have been reported to be infected by 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.

A "supersonic" rise in French COVID-19 infections is set to continue in the coming days and there are no signs of the trend reversing, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.

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(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Josephine Mason and Nick Macfie; Editing by Catherine Evans and Alexandra Hudson)