Save Lives and Reopen Economies with Rapid Antigen Testing

The ITUC is pressing for urgent and large-scale investment in rapid antigen testing for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, in order to bring the pandemic under control.

These tests, also know as ‘strip’ tests, can be done by anyone at home, in workplaces or in other settings and produce a result in 15-30 minutes. Their key feature is that they give a positive reading when people are actually contagious and thus likely to pass it on to others. The commonly used Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests can give a positive result well after an individual is contagious, are expensive and logistically complicated.

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said: “We are adding our voices to those of eminent scientists who are calling for this. Adding these tests to the existing armoury of measures to tackle the pandemic would enable workplaces that have been shut down to reopen safely with a very high degree of confidence.

“It would save millions of jobs, revitalise local business such as entertainment and food and beverage, and provide hope for rebooting tourism and aviation, which are being crushed by the pandemic, as well as other sectors that are teetering on the brink.

“Masks, social distancing, sick pay for everyone who tests positive, social protection and job and business support measures are still essential and are vital to the effective roll out of rapid antigen or ‘strip’ tests but those tests can make a real contribution to stopping the virus and saving jobs.

“The world cannot continue to yo-yo between lockdowns and partial reopening. The social, economic and health costs are too high and are a price that does not need to be paid”.

A briefing prepared by the ITUC, which draws on specialist input and the work of epidemiologists, virologists and other experts, sets out the rationale for major investment in strip tests and large-scale rollout.

In Slovakia infection rates have been brought down to the point where a partial reopening of the economy has been possible, thanks to:

  • a mass effort that involved rapid antigen testing of 65% of the population at the start of this month;
  • follow-up testing in virus hotspots and those testing positive going into isolation.

Other countries have begun distributing the tests and running localised mass testing efforts.

The ITUC is advising unions to both push for the rollout of these tests and insist with governments and employers that workers are protected in workplaces and through paid sick leave and income support.

A Harvard University study points to the huge economic benefits, with an economic return of 14 times the investment needed to produce and distribute rapid antigen tests.

“The current approach to tackling the virus is costing working people too much in jobs and mental health and unthinkable loss of life; this cannot be allowed to continue. Vaccines are on the horizon and the ITUC is backing affordable access for all, but vaccines alone are not a silver bullet. We need to add these simpler and cheaper but effective strip tests to enable economies to reopen for the long term, and help suppress the virus to the point where we can begin to trust safety in the workplace and in public spaces,” added Sharan Burrow.