Stephen McNeice
Stephen McNeice

13.33 2 Apr 2021


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Coronavirus 'breath tests' could be available within six months, a senior scientist has said.

Professor Mark Ferguson is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government and chair of the COVID-19 Rapid Testing Group.

The group's report on rapid antigen tests was published yesterday, recommending that the likes of lateral flow tests should now be more widely used alongside PCR testing.

The Government's now set to roll out pilot programmes across settings such as schools and universities.

Minister Simon Harris says officials hope to "quickly begin" pilot studies in four universities over the next few weeks.

On The Pat Kenny Show, Professor Ferguson - who's also the head of Science Foundation Ireland - said rapid testing is a 'rapidly developing and very exciting' field.

Coronavirus 'breath tests' could be available within six months, leading scientist says

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He said the evidence for their use emerging at an ‘unprecedented rate’ - alongside the rapid development of new types of test.

He said: “There are over 1,000 rapid tests in development - I think you’ll see major new advances in the next few months.

“In the works, are breath tests - little things you blow into a bit like a breathalyser. I suspect they’ll be in in six months' time or something like that. This is a rapidly developing field.”

He said there's currently a 'great variability' in the quality tests, with just 12 out of 144 commercial kits meeting the specification in the UK.

However, he said the tests are improving massively - and that the EU has published a list of all the tests that meet the high standards they've set.

'An additional measure'

One of the key concerns around antigen testing is that it's less sensitive than the widely used PCR test, which many scientists have described as the gold standard.

However, recent months have seen leading experts call for rapid tests to be used for mass testing in particular settings or when there are outbreaks.

Professor Ferguson has moved to reassured people about the accuracy of the rapid tests - pointing to data showing there’s only around one in a thousand ‘false positives’ in testing.

He said one of the key recommendations would be that people would self-administer the tests.

However, he stressed it wouldn't replace the other measures we've all become familiar with over the last year.

He explained: “It doesn’t remove mask-wearing or social distancing or anything like that - it’s an additional measure.

“The interesting thing is these measures are multiplicative… it multiplies the benefit.”

He described it as effectively a health and safety measure - one which identifies most of the infectious individuals and therefore decreases the chances of the virus spreading.

Professor Ferguson said he doesn't believe Ireland is too far behind other countries in rolling out these rapid tests, but he's keen to see Ireland 'become a leader' in the field.

Main image: Professor Mark Ferguson. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

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