The Health Department has not ruled out the possibility of nationwide COVID-19 rapid testing and is studying the results of mass population screening elsewhere before making a decision.

It referred to the Slovakia experience, where a world-first massive programme to test its entire 5.6 million population, using rapid antigen tests, has been carried out.

Around one per cent of those participating tested positive as the country embarks on its second round of national mass testing, which is considered to be a complex logistical operation.

The Health Ministry was asked to react to the recent proposal of Nationalist Party health spokesperson Stephen Spiteri to rapid test the entire country for COVID-19, urging Malta to consider this as a last resort before healthcare systems are overwhelmed.

It would allow healthcare workers to identify and isolate asymptomatic carriers, who are spreading the virus without knowing it, Spiteri wrote on Facebook, calling for tougher containment measures in the struggle to manage rising numbers and the looming collapse of the healthcare system.

Asked for its view on nationwide rapid testing for the island, the World Health Organisation told Times of Malta that “if a country has additional capacity and wishes to conduct a broader testing initiative, then it is important this is properly communicated so people understand what they are being asked to do”.

WHO: it is important to know where the virus is

If conducted, testing should then be accompanied by a comprehensive COVID-19 follow-up for any positive cases and subsequent contact tracing and treatment where necessary, the WHO spokesperson said.

“We are constantly learning about this virus but the one thing we have learnt is how important it is to know where it is.

Many are now making great efforts to increase their capacity

“If we do not know where the virus is, we will not know how to fight it.”

Testing is a crucial tool but, as in all stages of this pandemic, it must be part of a comprehensive approach, the spokesperson added.

“While testing policies differ from country to country, many are now making great efforts to increase their capacity as it becomes clear that the way to control the epidemic and save lives is to use a combination of swabbing, tracing contacts, treating and isolating those who are unwell and using physical distancing plus hand and respiratory hygiene.”

Malta has just over 2,000 active COVID-19 cases, with numbers having effectively doubled in less than a month.

On-the-spot tests were rolled out last week, with Health Minister Chris Fearne saying about 1,000 were expected to be carried out every day, with two additional swabbing centres to focus on rapid testing. Around 70,000 of these testing kits have been purchased.

Rapid antigen tests return results in minutes but they are not as accurate as the gold-standard PCR.

They are being used only for healthcare workers, those working with elderly people and at the airport, with schools and primary healthcare up next.

Close to 370,000 swab tests have been carried out since the start of the pandemic.

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