While the US, Europe and parts of Asia have had access to RAT for the most part of 2021, the tests only came into circulation in Australian retail in recent months and supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths began stocking rapid antigen tests in November.
But the latest outbreak has demonstrated a failure by government to prepare, according to peak national body for pharmacists, Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.
“The current shortage in RAT is happening because the Australian Government and most state governments did not adequately prepare for the inevitable overwhelm of the PCR testing system, and the need to supplement with RATs,” a PSA national president associate professor Chris Freeman. told Inside Retail.
“RAT supply should be part of the National Medicines Stockpile – just like vaccines, antiviral medicines, face masks and PPE for health workers.”
Pharmacists under pressure
The peak body, which represents 18,000 pharmacy professionals, said pharmacists are being inundated with calls each day about RAT stock, with most unsure of when they will next receive deliveries.
“Phone calls have become so constant and distracting from other work that some pharmacies have had to send them straight to an answering machine,” Freeman said.
The RAT crisis, coupled with the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination program, is putting “a huge strain on pharmacist workloads”.
And pharmacies are not immune to the workforce struggles facing many other sectors, including staff shortages due to isolation and Covid infection. In fact, pharmacists are likely to face increased exposure to Covid-19 being on the frontline of healthcare.
“We are seeing an increasing incidence of people who have had a positive RAT result, seeking further care and advice from their local pharmacy,” Freeman said.
Since October 2021, PSA has been calling for federal and state governments to introduce free RATs for pharmacy staff to ensure that the stores can remain open and continue to serve the public safely. But to date, this request has not been met.
“Despite community pharmacies being a major access point to purchase RATs, there is no strategy for pharmacists and staff to use them to identify potentially infectious staff,” Freeman said.
Last week, the federal government announced free RATs would be made available to concession card holders, through community pharmacies. But PSA says pharmacists still do not know how this program is going to operate or be implemented as yet.
Reports of price gouging
As the crisis continues, some retailers have been accused of taking advantage of the situation by bumping up prices for the highly sought after tests.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said last week that it will “name and shame” retailers and suppliers that jack up the price of rapid antigen tests.
ACCC chair Rod Sims said the watchdog had already received over 100 customer contacts in relation to the pricing of rapid antigen tests.
PSA says any incidents of price gouging should be reported directly to the ACCC for investigation.
“Price gouging helps nobody. It is a barrier to access, a barrier to reducing virus transmission, and a barrier to people getting the health care they need if they are sick,” Freeman said.
Delivery platform steps up
While retailers struggle to meet high demand for tests, an Australian delivery platform has taken an innovative approach, offering to redistribute unwanted tests to those who need them.
Zoom2u has built a RAT re-allocation platform with same day delivery after realising that there may be many businesses with a stockpile of tests sitting in offices from last year.
“Coming back into the office, I realised I had 10 rapid antigen tests left over from our Christmas party preparation, and knew that others were in need. After sharing a LinkedIn post to see if others wanted to claim them – all were immediately spoken for,” founder Steve Orenstein explained.
Zoom2u’s 10 remaining tests were redistributed in a matter of hours, and Orenstein believes if retailers got involved, contributing one or two packs each, it would have a big impact.
Orenstein also blames the government for a lack of preparation.
“After the delivery failures, we witnessed with the vaccine rollout, the Government should have been prepared for this,” he said.
Orenstein wrote to ministers in July 2021, requesting a meeting to discuss the accessibility of rapid antigen tests, particularly for those travelling cross-country in the delivery sector. But he says this has “fallen on deaf ears:
He is encouraging businesses in metro Sydney to reach out if they have any leftover tests so that they can be delivered to those who need them most, free of charge.