Von Francesco Guarascio, John Miller
BRUSSELS / ZURICH (Reuters) – European countries intend to buy millions of rapid COVID-19 tests, mainly from Roche and Abbott, as an EU document shows, as global production of the tests is stretched by a surge in infections.
Antigen tests are a faster alternative to the common test kits for molecular PCR (polymerase chain reaction). While less accurate, they can deliver results in minutes instead of the days sometimes required for PCR testing – a difference that could help better track cases and contain the pandemic.
Around ten European nations test antigen tests by the US company Abbott or by its Swiss rival Roche and its partner SD Biosensor, as the document shows, without naming the countries.
Both antigen and PCR tests require a nasal swab. While PCR tests detect genetic material in the virus, antigen tests look for proteins on the virus surface.
Countries around the world are thronging to secure supplies to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, from tests and treatments to potential vaccines. Earlier this month, the EU agreed to pay more than € 1 billion (US $ 1.2 billion) for the supply of antiviral drug Remdesivir, shortly before trial results that questioned its effectiveness in treating COVID-19 .
“The rapid antigen tests produced by Abbott and SD Biosensor / Roche are the most contemplated options,” said the document published this week on an under-regarded European Commission website.
It included a debriefing of a meeting of European health experts last week where governments exchanged information on rapid tests before new Commission proposals on the matter, as well as a video conference of EU leaders to be held on Thursday.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Friday that the EU executive would instruct € 100 million (US $ 118 million) to buy up to 22 million antigen tests to meet the “immediate needs” of EU countries cover up.
Additional kits would be bought through a joint procurement program led by the commission, von der Leyen said, although it is not clear whether EU governments will choose to buy together or alone.
Half a dozen of the 27 EU countries are already using antigen tests.
According to its own information, Germany has received nine million test kits per month from Abbott, Roche and Siemens Healthineers, while the state of Bavaria has ordered another 10 million. Italy announced last week that it would run 10 million tests in the coming days.
The European rush for rapid tests comes as global demand has risen in recent months due to a surge in infections.
The US government announced in August that it had purchased 150 million antigen tests from Abbott for use by December.
Abbott said in October it has a monthly production capacity of 50 million antigen tests. It was not immediately available for comment on this story.
Roche says it can manufacture up to 40 million rapid test kits per month and plans to double its capacity by the end of the year “to meet the growing demands of healthcare systems.”
Among other big companies, manufacturing from companies like Siemens Healthineers and Becton Dickinson could add millions of tests to global capacity each month, but demand could temporarily outpace supply, Healthineers warned.
At the start of the pandemic, there was a shortage of PCR testing in many countries due to soaring orders, and Roche said demand is still far exceeding supply.
Antigen testing will be one of the main topics EU leaders will discuss in a video conference Thursday, EU officials told Reuters.
This will follow up on Wednesday’s proposals from the commission to improve the bloc’s testing strategy and coordinate national rules on quarantines and contact tracing.
Antigen tests are also made by dozens of other companies, but most have lower or poorly tested accuracy compared to major players.
In clinical studies, Abbott’s test has shown a sensitivity or ability to correctly detect positive cases over 97%. It also has a specificity greater than 98%, which helps correctly identify uninfected people and prevents travelers from suffering unnecessary quarantines.
The Roche test has a slightly lower sensitivity, but a higher specificity.
($ 1 = 0,8466 Euro)
Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio and John Miller; additional reporting by Emma Pinedo Gonzalez, Matthias Blamont and Emilio Parodi; Editing by Mark Potter
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