There are two kinds of Covid tests available, and the cost varies depending on where you go. So which is best? And when do you have to pay?
As Australia’s borders slowly start to reopen, coronavirus tests will remain a staple of normal life – but there is more than one kind of test you can get, and while some are free, others will cost you.
The Queensland government was embroiled in controversy this week after suggesting people entering the state would be required to complete a PCR test at a cost of $145. After days of back-and-forth, the cost requirement was dropped.
PCR tests can be obtained for free, and now there are rapid antigen tests being sold at Woolies.
So which is better? And when do you have to pay?
UMass Chan Medical School assistant professor Nathaniel Hafer explained the differences between the PCR and antigen tests to The Conversation.
The PCR test
He said the PCR tests were the more accurate of the two but came at a higher cost.
“They require a skilled laboratory technician and special equipment to run them, and the amplification process can take an hour or more from start to finish,” Dr Hafer said.
“Usually only large, centralised testing facilities – like hospital labs – can conduct many PCR tests at a time.”
In layman’s terms, PCR tests take a swab before amplifying it in a machine up to a billion times, detecting the smallest amounts of the virus. It also has a close to 100 per cent accuracy rate in finding Covid.
He added there was a much longer wait time for a PCR test.
In Australia, the cost of the test is around $150 but they can be obtained for free at state-run testing clinics.
They can be completed privately at pathology centres Sullivan Nicolaides in Queensland, St Vincent’s pathology in Victoria and SydPath in New South Wales.
A negative PCR test is also required for anyone wanting to enter Australia from overseas. There is currently not an Australian government requirement forcing people to show a negative PCR test if they wish to travel overseas, but some countries and airlines do require this.
Only at private pathology centres can patients receive a PCR result with the required details many countries and airlines require if a person wants to enter.
The clinics’ certificates will have your name, DOB, passport number, the name of the lab that did the test and the date as well as the result.
The rapid antigen test
Meanwhile, the rapid antigen tests come in at just a fraction of the cost and can be completed at home.
Antigens are substances that cause the body to produce an immune response as they trigger the creation of antibodies. The rapid test works by detecting the coronavirus antigens.
Dr Hafer explained that while these are less accurate than a PCR test they are still very useful.
“They are so easy to use that people with no special training can perform them and interpret the results – even at home. They also produce results quickly, typically in less than 15 minutes,” he said.
“Antigen tests do have some drawbacks. When a person is symptomatic or has a lot of virus in their system, antigen tests are very accurate. However, unlike molecular PCR tests, antigen tests don’t amplify the thing they are looking for.
“This means there needs to be enough viral antigen in the sample for the antibodies on the test strip to generate a signal.”
The tests can be bought from pharmacies for between $20 and $50.
A war of words has erupted between Ms Palaszczuk and Health Minister Greg Hunt over the tests in recent days
Queensland is set to open to visitors from across the country, including hot spot areas, next month – either on December 17, or once the state reaches its 80 per cent vaccination rate.
However, there has been widespread confusion over entry requirements.
For days, there was backlash over a supposed plan to charge incoming travellers $145 for PCR tests required 72 hours before entry.
Yesterday, Ms Palaszczuk posted a tweet claiming the Health Minister was committed to funding the pricey tests so travellers would not be slugged with the bill.
Mr Hunt has since confirmed Australian travellers won’t have to pay for the tests if they are obtained at state-run clinics, with Ms Palaszczuk confirming in a statement the news that a standard free test and text message confirming a negative result would suffice.