The spike in COVID-19 cases, the tight quarantine rules and the long wait for official testing have brought about a new phenomenon: a black market for self-testing kits that are being sold clandestinely at more than triple the original price.
People are increasingly resorting to these home kits to perform the COVID-19 test on themselves, with a result in just 15 minutes.
Last week, Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci argued against their use, saying that since they are uncomfortable to take, many people would invariably handle them wrongly, leading to many false negatives.
Self-testing kits are technically illegal in Malta but are still readily available for those who seek them. Some companies are selling them online but sales are limited to professionals.
Black market sales
Sources said the health authorities are aware of this black market but admit they are unable to control it.
One woman told Times of Malta on condition of anonymity that a test she bought for €6 in September was now selling for €25 from the same person, who put the price hike down to an increase in demand.
Another man, also speaking anonymously, bought two home self-test kits for €15 each, admitting that he met the ‘dealer’ on a St Julian’s street.
Others said they procured the testing kits from people who recently travelled abroad and who imported a number of kits “for family and friends”.
All three said they wanted the self-test kits to be able to test at home when they felt any symptoms that resembled those of COVID-19, without the need to go to an official testing centre. They said they had not so far tested positive and did not need to quarantine.
Countries like Italy and the United Kingdom provide testing kits for people, most of the time free of charge.
Some, like Cyprus, distribute them for people to test on a weekly basis.
What do doctors think?
Meanwhile, doctors have divergent opinions on whether the home test kits should be made be allowed in Malta.
The government must ensure that there is sufficient capacity to test people expediently
While some are hesitant about reliability, others believe they would alleviate the pressure on the government’s testing facilities, which are under immense stress.
The Nationalist Party this week called for regulated self-testing for COVID-19 in view of a “breakdown” in the testing and contact tracing system.
The party said the introduction of self-testing kits could ease the testing backlog caused by the government owing to a lack of planning.
Contacted on Wednesday, opposition health spokesman Stephen Spiteri said that, as a medical doctor, he would rather have home test kits being made available rather than people calling to book a test and being given an appointment for a week later.
“Our current capacity for testing and contact tracing is not keeping up with the demand. Ideally, everyone does the PCR test, which is the most accurate, but there’s a backlog and it costs too much to do it privately.
“So the government has two options: either send people to take the test privately and foot the bill or else make the home test available in a regulated fashion for people to test at home,” Spiteri said.
On the flipside, Martin Balzan, the president of the doctors’ union, said the home test was “operator-dependent” and the result could be skewed if the person does not do the test correctly.
“These tests are prone to error and manipulation. The government must ensure that there is sufficient capacity to test people expediently. If this system works, as it worked in the past, then home kits are not needed,” he said.
Other doctors who spoke to Times of Malta on condition of anonymity said they agreed with the home tests as it was a way to further control the virus spread.
However, they expressed doubts on whether those testing at home would then be self-disciplined enough to remain in isolation once the authorities did not know about them.
Another doctor said: “I’m against their use as there will be people who may still go outdoors despite testing positive.
“But they are quite useful if used correctly, so I don’t think they should be banned.”
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