Allow antigen testing in pharmacies, Madrid region tells Spanish government

Emma Pinedo and Inti Landauro
·2-min read
Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Alpedrete
Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Alpedrete

By Emma Pinedo and Inti Landauro

MADRID (Reuters) - The Madrid capital region is pressing the Spanish government to allow pharmacies to carry out mass antigen testing for COVID-19, tapping into a broad debate on the efficiency of the rapid tests.

Antigen kits are less precise than standard PCR (swab) tests but can offer results in a few minutes, as opposed to days. While PCR tests detect genetic material in the virus, antigen tests detect proteins on the virus’s surface, though both are meant to pick up active infections.

For the conservative Madrid region, which has often locked horns with the left-wing central government on how best to tackle the pandemic in one of Spain's worst hotspots, speed makes antigen tests a key tool.

"Every day that passes without the Spanish government authorizing us to use pharmacies (to perform antigen tests) is a day we lose against the pandemic," the region's deputy chief Ignacio Aguado told a news conference on Wednesday.

"The aim has to be to reach as many Madrilenos as possible. If we are not able to reach all the people of Madrid before Christmas, we will have to ask the (health) minister why."

The health ministry said it was evaluating the proposal but health emergency chief Fernando Simon told reporters the Madrid region demand raised a lot of concerns, including doubts about the efficacy and legal issues.

"We can't envisage that someone with symptoms would go to a pharmacy to get the test done," Simon said on Monday.

"There's a risk that the (pharmacy) staff, by carrying out the tests, if they can do it, would get contaminated."

The Madrid region has bought 5 million antigen tests from Abbott Laboratories and has so far used 730,000, mostly in mass testing in areas with high rates of coronavirus, with the rest used in primary health care, hospital emergency rooms and nursing homes.

In one of Madrid's hardest-hit districts, Vallecas, residents said they were in favour of the tests being carried out in pharmacies - if they were free or very cheap.

The European Commission recommended on Wednesday the use of antigen tests mostly on people already showing symptoms, saying that the kits were deemed less accurate in detecting the virus in asymptomatic cases.

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Inti Landauro and Marco Trujillo; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Mark Heinrich)