Normal text sizeLarger text sizeVery large text size
Transport delays are slowing the supply of rapid antigen tests to Australian stores at the same time other countries ramp up orders for at least one billion tests, sparking calls on federal and state leaders to move more quickly to tackle a dire shortage of the kits.
Test kit companies are struggling to overcome staff shortages and supply chain delays while they try to bring more kits into the country, although they say there is enough factory capacity to produce more tests if state and federal governments place orders.
“Australia is not too late, but it needs to move faster,” said Hough Pharma chief executive Greg Hough, who imports rapid antigen tests (or RATs) approved by federal health regulators.
“Supply is an issue and will be for some time but we are also having huge problems unloading planes and getting transport, as everybody is short-staffed.”
The federal government said on Friday there were 200 million test kits on the way to Australia when state and federal orders were combined, although this includes shipments over several months.
The government has said it expects to distribute 10 million RATs to the states and territories this week and next, while it had another 80 million units on order.
The Victorian government has ordered 44 million to be supplied during January while the NSW government said it would receive 50 million tests this month and next, with another 50 million coming from February and into March.
The test kit shortage is undermining messages from federal and state leaders about new rules that are meant to make it easier for essential workers to emerge from isolation, with governments telling people to use RAT kits but consumers struggling to find them in stores.
ACTU national secretary Sally McManus aired her frustration on Friday that people were being expected to work when they could not take a rapid test to make sure they did not have COVID-19.
“It is disgraceful that it is easier to get COVID than it is to get a rapid antigen test at the moment,” she said.
Industry groups have welcomed the national cabinet agreement on Thursday to make the rules more flexible for essential workers, in the hope this could fix worker shortages, but they noted everything depended on access to the test kits.
“Many of the states require rapid antigen testing to bring close contacts back to work, which is not available and renders the arrangements unworkable,” said Australian Food and Grocery Council chief Tanya Barden.
“Until supply constraints on rapid antigen tests are resolved, many employees caught up in isolation requirements will still be unable to return to work,” the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said.
Roche Diagnostics, one of the bigger global suppliers, said it expected to receive about 30 million RAT kits from January to March, with each of those kits holding five tests.
A global race is under way to secure supplies, with United States President Joe Biden promising on Thursday to buy 500 million more rapid tests on top of 500 million he announced in December, with the kits to be distributed for free.
Hough Pharma has supplied retailers with RAT kits made in China and approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration but it has experienced import delays due to staff shortages caused the by the rapid spread of the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.
Mr Hough said Australian governments had not acted when he demonstrated RAT kits in 2020 but still had time to get millions more tests.
“It’s certainly possible, but one thing that they have to do is they have to order them,” Mr Hough said.
“Australia is coming to the market late but we are ramping up our manufacturing as we speak. We are waiting on the TGA to give us a nod on another test that we have, and we’ll be able to ramp that up to about eight million a week.
“In ten weeks we can give them 50 million if that’s what they want to do, but it’s the same old adage – you don’t get it until you order. And the longer you take to order it, the longer it takes to get here and somebody else can jump in in front of you.”
With rumours spreading that the federal government was telling suppliers to hand over their RAT kits, the Department of Health issued a statement denying it was asking anyone to redirect their supplies.
“The Department of Health reaffirms that the department has not requisitioned all RAT supplies within and entering Australia,” it said.
Stay across the most crucial developments related to the pandemic with the Coronavirus Update. Sign up to receive the weekly newsletter.