If the UK is any guide, rapid antigen test kits for Covid-19 could become as ubiquitous in our lives as QR codes – an essential key to accessing workplaces and venues – and businesses are lining up to cash in.
The tests, which have a 15-minute turnaround, have up till now been used mainly in large workplaces, aged care and sensitive health settings, because they had to be administered by a health professional.
But after the announcement by the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, that the tests could be available for home use from 1 November, the market is set to explode.
With such an enormous market beckoning, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has received dozens of applications over the past 12 months to import and sell different types of rapid antigen tests.
Tests made overseas must have an Australian sponsor, which is responsible for their compliance with local regulations.
And it’s not just well-known international therapeutic goods companies looking to sell the products. A number of medical entrepreneurs and even some from outside the medical field have are hoping to get a piece of the market.
Pantonic Health, run by the daughters of David Panton, the partner of the former foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, was one of the first to receive approval in September last year.
After 20 years in the business of running medical practices and pharmacies, the family-run business quickly appreciated the opportunities of the Covid pandemic and began focusing on importing and selling the US Carestart rapid antigen test in partnership with Arrotex Pharmaceuticals.
“Pantonic is already supplying CareStart testing kits to various state and federal government departments, and numerous large corporations across Australia,” a spokesperson said.
These include the Howard Springs facility, which was set up by the commonwealth to house Australians returning from overseas on repatriation flights. The tests have also been used by large companies including Fortescue Metals Group, Qantas, Lendlease and Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the spokesperson said.
The company says its tests have been shown to be highly sensitive to the Delta variant and have a very low false-positive rate of just 0.01%. It is now gearing up for a boom in sales and has already had 3,000 inquiries from schools.
Another newcomer is Suretest, founded by Dr Peter Lewis, whose website describes him as “an internationally recognised regenerative medicine physician”.
Lewis runs a clinic in Malvern, Melbourne, which offers a range of services including platelet rich plasma therapies, which he uses to treat erectile dysfunction, hair loss and degenerative injuries.
Lewis is also the current chairman of the Australian Ringside Medical Association and the presiding doctor for most boxing and kickboxing fights in Victoria.
Lewis has been a strong advocate for rapid antigen testing in the media, regularly calling for their rollout in Australia.
“We have a major laboratory pushback to antigen testing,” he told the Age in January.
“Anyone associated with a laboratory is saying that PCR is the gold standard and that’s absolutely true, but if you’re a doctor like me and you’re treating patients, you want a test that allows you to rapidly separate people who are infected from those who aren’t,” he said.
Lewis has applied to import rapid antigen tests produced in China by the Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise Co.
Lewis said he was delighted with the news that rapid antigen test could now be sold for home use.
“I have a warehouse full of tests and would like to start selling them tomorrow. These tests have been available for some time and they will really help in this life-threatening, economy-destroying pandemic,” he said.
Another relative newcomer is Hough Pharma, which has featured in the Andrew Bolt Report on Sky and in News Corp websites.
Hough’s managing director is Greg Hough, a former managing director of media company APN, who has spent time in the US in various businesses including events management and selling an all-natural veterinary joint supplement for pets, before heading up Hough Pharma on the Gold Coast.
His company is importing the Biohit Healthcare test, also produced in China.
The company says the testing system offers a linked “plug and play results reporting system which will send results directly to a person’s phone for storage in their online wallet”.
Other companies, such as Allsafe Medical and Pharma Soul, run by 24-year-old Jake Golman from Vaucluse, were set up at the beginning of the pandemic to import protective equipment and have now pivoted to importing antigen tests.
The TGA has been using the Doherty Institute to assess all tests and its reports show that the tests can vary considerably in their reliability.
A number, mainly sourced from China, have already been withdrawn by their sponsoring Australian importers after poor reliability results.