Innovating COVID-19 testing 

When University of Melbourne Professor Deborah Williamson’s team at the Doherty Institute started work evaluating rapid antigen tests, they had not yet been rolled out at scale in Australia. Their work proved valuable in determining how, when and where to use these tests.  

Rapid antigen test

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Although amplifying genetic material with PCR tests provides higher accuracy, the immediate results provided by rapid antigen tests (RATs) offer a quick way of detecting individuals with COVID-19 infection.  

The team at the Doherty Institute met regularly with government and other key stakeholders to understand how they could help provide the best scientific evidence to support the use of these tests.  

The Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) at the Doherty Institute began by looking to determine the performance of RATs available on the market in a controlled laboratory setting.  

“However, knowing how these tests perform in a lab is only one part of the testing – we then wanted to look into how useful these tests were in ‘real-world’ settings, such as hospital emergency departments, and how easy these tests were for people to do themselves at home,” says Professor Williamson.    

Not long after this study, the TGA approved rapid antigen self-testing, and now RATs are part of people’s everyday lives. 

“We were one of the first groups in the county to be systematically looking at these tests. There was a lack of data examining the experience of frequent use of RAT self-testing at home, and certainly not in an Australian context,” says Professor Williamson. 

Just as the team were wrapping up at the end of 2021, Omicron appeared.  

Moving at speed, the team at VIDRL were able to quickly grow the new variant ready to test against some of the most widely used RATs.  

“We received our first Omicron isolate on a Tuesday, grew it for three days and performed the initial screen to determine if the new variant was still detected in at least ten of the RATs, and it was,” said Royal Melbourne Hospital's Josh Deerain, a Medical Scientist at VIDRL.  

“I am so proud of this. Of being able to provide the data and confidence to the local and international community, that the rapid antigen tests being used would detect new variants.” 

And the work hasn’t stopped. As new sub-variants appear, the team routinely check whether the circulating variants are detected by some of the most commonly used RATs in Australia.  Their work to rapidly assess RATs and compare their ability to detect the Delta and Omicron variants was published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology.

“It’s a true example of how a public health reference laboratory should work with government. We were covering the entire spectrum from the development of tests, through to their implementation and translation into policy and practice,” says Professor Williamson.  

Professor Deborah Williamson
Rapid antigen test

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash