Among the many criticisms levelled against indifferent moves to contain the spread of coronavirus, one that appears rather enigmatic is the delayed permission for rapid antigen tests. Experts hold that the move for such tests should have started months back---preferably at the early stage of the pandemic outbreak. Given the limited number of hospitals and diagnostic centres with PCR facilities-- the regular diagnostic method, the need for rapid antigen tests was voiced from some quarters, and although a well known local entity succeeded in developing the antigen testing kits in a short time, the authorities neither approved of those nor allowed private facilities to use the kits. On the other hand, there was no immediate move to procure such kits from wherever the authorities deemed appropriate. Antigen tests are performed in many countries, including the USA, Europe and India, but Bangladesh wasted time over the approval of these tests. It is only a week ago that the authorities have announced that ten district hospitals would now provide antigen tests and that the number of hospitals would be raised gradually. It has been learnt that an antigen test will take some 20 to 30 minutes to give results. Meanwhile, the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) has reportedly provided necessary training to the required manpower of the 10 districts.
Antigen tests are deemed necessary also because of the high costs involved in PCR tests as well as the very limited number of hospitals and diagnostic labs that were initially designated to do the job. The number of authorised hospitals and labs has increased over the months, but still, the country is dependent on little over a hundred RT-PCR labs, making the test process expensive and time-consuming, thereby delaying detections, isolation as well as the treatment of COVID-19 patients.
Clearly, it is the cost that discourages many to go for PCR tests unless of course symptoms of the disease become strongly visible. Now that the decision has been announced and tests are believed to have begun free of charge, it is important that the job were performed well and people encouraged to get themselves tested. The health minister has said that testing facilities would start in some other districts soon enough where there is no PCR lab facility. According to reports quoting officials of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), antigen test should be done within days after the appearance of COVID-19 symptoms. The districts where the tests have reportedly begun are Panchagargh, Gaibandha, Joypurhat, Patuakhali, Meherpur, Munshiganj, Brahmanbaria, Jashore, Madaripur and Sylhet. While the DGHS is of the opinion that the rapid testing method would substantially reduce the burden on PCR testing facilities, the important thing about it is that it is free of charge, and if done in a disciplined manner, it should be able to attract a large number of people to know about their health condition.
In the light of the government decision, it is expected that bringing an increased number of people under the rapid testing network would help curb infection and also make people alert about the danger of the pandemic.