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Testing times for Pharmacy

McKesson Europe Director of Public Affairs, Ronan Brett, looks at the COVID-19 testing opportunity.

Most of us are becoming familiar with the process of testing for COVID-19 that is an inevitable part of ‘unlocking’ countries and allowing us the freedoms that we used to take for granted. Whether it’s a quick lateral flow test to allow children back in school and attendance at the curiously-named UEFA Euro 20 matches or a lab-confirmed PCR test for foreign travel, it’s now clear that testing — alongside vaccinating — will be an essential way of managing the virus post-pandemic.

And if, as we are led to believe, we need to learn to live with COVID-19 for at least the next few years, continuous contact tracing and local surge testing will be needed for some time to come.

The challenge for public health bodies is how to provide these services on top of vaccination programs, existing health services and the backlog of urgent medical cases from the last 18 months. Which is why community pharmacy should be at the heart of the response…

Community pharmacies are, by their very nature, at the core of local communities. They are therefore in an ideal position to offer accessible and convenient COVID-19 tests – and many are doing so already. They are easily mobilized in areas where new variants or high rates are detected and can provide a rapid response. Staffed by skilled and experienced healthcare professionals, they already have the relationships with local people that contribute to the overall success of testing programs. Indeed, in some countries, they are already deployed in screening and testing for instance, for high blood pressure or diabetes.  This is a natural extension of their role.

It's been acknowledged by the UK's Secretary of State for Health that there will be a 'big shift' in how vaccines are administered in England. He has indicated that pharmacies will deliver more jabs this winter whilst doctors focus on core business. Let's hope other countries are open to change too.

Unsurprisingly, as the market for COVID-19 tests and testing grows, we are seeing many new entrants and therefore regulation is required. Quality and safety is paramount and it’s beholden on policy makers to implement quality control measures on both tests, laboratories and testers. The European Commission has started by compiling a list of recognized COVID-19 rapid antigen tests, but it’s vital that a common EU quality standard is quickly established and national standards for COVID-19 tests and testing introduced.

Self-testing, in the form of lateral flow kits, is a valuable element of opening up society, but their accuracy can be increased when pharmacy teams advise their patients about how to take the test and what to do if they get a positive one. It makes sense that pharmacies are deployed in this way.

Of course, all this needs to be resourced and pharmacists should be fairly reimbursed for any testing role they undertake. But the benefits – quickly detecting the virus and proceeding with containment measures – are hugely cost effective and will save public resources by restricting the spread of COVID-19.  It will allow us all to enjoy more freedoms in the years ahead. And you can’t put a price on that.

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