National Post (Latest Edition)

Airlines look for fast test results

Pre-flight COVID-19 screening

- John Miller and Emilio Parodi

ZURICH/ MILAN • European airl ines are pinning hopes on pre- flight COVID-19 tests that deliver results as fast as pregnancy tests to help restore passengers’ confidence in taking to the skies in confined spaces with shared air.

Germany’s Lufthansa, at the mercy of government bailouts for survival, is in talks with Swiss drugmaker Roche over deploying socalled antigen tests, according to two people familiar with the discussion­s, as the airline aims to make them available next month.

Italian operator Alitalia, meanwhile, told Reuters that from last Wednesday it would add two flights from Milan to Rome, to the two it is already offering from Rome to Milan, exclusivel­y for passengers with negative tests.

The tests are administer­ed by health authoritie­s at the airports and included in ticket prices. If they prove popular and safe, these antigen- tested flights will be expanded to more domestic, and later internatio­nal, routes, the airline said.

Unlike laboratory- based molecular tests that have been the staple of health authoritie­s in the pandemic, antigen tests do not require machines to process. Much like pregnancy tests, they can produce results in about 15 minutes.

However the tests require an uncomforta­ble nasal swab and are not as accurate as the molecular, or PCR, tests. They generally produce more “false negatives,” which could mean sick people could slip through the cracks and onto planes.

An increasing number are hitting the market, from companies such as Abbott Laboratori­es, Becton Dickinson & Co. and Quidel Corp. and Roche, which is rebranding antigen tests from South Korea’s privately held SD Biosensor.

Airlines are pressing government­s to embrace alternativ­es to blanket travel restrictio­ns amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Europe.

Rapid antigen tests that can be administer­ed by non- medical staff are expected to become available in coming weeks for as little as US$ 7 each, the head of industry body the Internatio­nal Air Transport Associatio­n said on Tuesday.

Despite the drawbacks of such antigen tests, carriers hope they could tip the balance in convincing people to fly.

“It is to give ... confidence, at a specific point in time, that the result is positive or negative,” said Christian Paulus, a Roche research and developmen­t manager.

“The PCR remains the gold standard. Therefore if there are any questions open, or if the clinical appearance of the person who had a negative test, if the person has symptoms like a fever, then you would for sure do confirmato­ry testing.”

Alitalia launched its “COVID Tested Flights” program from Rome to Milan last week, and will expand it from Wednesday. Only passengers with negative COVID-19 results can board.

“So far no positive passengers have been found,” an Alitalia spokesman said, adding that many chose to take the airline’s antigen tests the night before the flight. Travellers can access airport- testing facilities via a preferred lane with their tickets.

The airline plans to analyze findings around the middle of October, but already expects antigen-tested flights will be expanded to domestic and later internatio­nal routes. “First, we have to see how this experiment goes,” the spokesman said.

The pre- flight antigen tests follow a scheme in Italy where such tests were used defensivel­y.

SD Biosensor said its tests had been deployed at Italian airports for incoming tourists, to avoid a renewed COVID- 19 wave imported from infection hot spots.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr last week told employees during a townhall meeting that the airline was in talks with Roche. The drugmaker started selling the rapid tests this week, and said SD Biosensor could initially supply it with about 40 million tests per month.

The Lufthansa tests could initially go to cabin crews, a spokeswoma­n said, though Bjoern Becker, a senior director of product management, ground and digital services for the Lufthansa Group, said the tests could also be made available to first-class and business-class passengers.

“We think the tests would be a better option than putting somebody into quarantine,” the airline spokeswoma­n said.

Beyond airlines, Germany is eyeing broader antigen test use from October, including in nursing homes where older patients have been hardest hit by the deadly virus.

Regulators still worry about test accuracy, which typically detect the virus 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the time, below the 95- per- cent rate of lab tests.

Still, some officials don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the pretty good as they pursue some semblance of economic normality.

“They’re good enough,” German health minister Jens Spahn said, pledging antigen tests in “significan­t quantities.” The state of Bavaria has already ordered 10 million.

 ?? Kai Pfaff enbach / REUTERS files ?? Lufthansa is in talks with drugmaker Roche to use rapid COVID tests, which it hopes could ease flyers’ concerns.
Kai Pfaff enbach / REUTERS files Lufthansa is in talks with drugmaker Roche to use rapid COVID tests, which it hopes could ease flyers’ concerns.

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