THE HIGHLY contagious Omicron covid-19 variant, first identified in late November, has spread around the world. Since it causes less severe disease than previous strains, governments in America, Australia and Britain have resisted reintroducing lockdown measures. Instead, they have relied on testing to identify cases and cut transmission. Yet they are struggling to get the tests they need. Americans and Australians are queueing for hours outside pharmacies to buy them. Why aren’t there enough to go around, and is the situation likely to improve soon?
The most precise tests are polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which look for the virus’s genetic material. Samples can be taken at test centres or at home but must be processed in a laboratory, which can take days to return results. In many countries rapid antigen tests—also known as lateral-flow tests, or LFTs—have become an important part of the toolkit. These can be carried out anywhere and give results in 30 minutes. But increasing the supply is tricky. Although they are made in more than 30 countries, around half of the 300-odd products available come from China, according to FIND, a medical charity. In December the Australian Financial Review, a newspaper, reported that a number of local importers suffered delays because of hold-ups at Chinese customs.
Governments have intervened in the market in an attempt to improve supply. In response to price rises over Christmas, Australia added rapid antigen tests to its Biosecurity Act which bans price gouging—defined as resale for more than 120% of the purchase price—and most exports. The government has also promised to cover the cost of tests for people on low incomes, but has left it to pharmacies to find and buy them. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has told American insurers that they must reimburse policyholders for as many as eight tests a month. These measures will make tests more affordable, but will also increase demand.
So governments are using their buying power to try to secure tests. In December Mr Biden promised to buy and send 500m to households; on January 13th he said he would double that number. This week the Australian government also put out a tender for tests worth A$62m ($45m).
Yet this influx of tests may arrive too late for the current wave. Few Americans will receive their ones before the end of January. Pharmacies in Australia say it will take until February to refill shelves. Britain’s National Health Service has trebled the number of free tests it sends out to 900,000 per day. But even in Britain, supplies have struggled to meet demand. The government is now considering ending the free scheme, which has cost more than £6bn ($8.2bn) since it was introduced. When cases of Omicron eventually fall, demand for LFTs should too. Until then, expect turbulence.
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