If you’re a close contact of a COVID-19 case in Singapore, you can access up to three rapid antigen test (RAT) kits for free from one of 100 vending machines islandwide.
Since mid-2021, the country has distributed at least two rounds of free RAT kits to households, says the Head of Melbourne University's School of Population and Global Health, Professor Nancy Baxter.
“Singapore is now limiting access to [free] rapid antigen tests to people who have been vaccinated and to their own citizens,” Professor Baxter said.
“But rapid antigen tests [in Singapore] are … more affordable than they are [in Australia] … you can get them for $6 for a kit.”
The approach is worlds away from Australia's current situation, as the country faces a chronic shortage of RATs and reports of price-gouging.
As demand soars for RATs, Australians are now paying $15-20 for a single home testing kit.
Amid growing calls to subsidise RATs, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday: “You can't make everything free.”
"This is not a medicine, it is a test. And so there is a difference between those two things," he said.
Professor Baxter said most countries are facing problems with adequate access to RATs as the sudden emergence of Omicron delivered an unexpected plot twist to the end of last year.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says rapid antigen tests are not medicines - and it is impractical to make them free for everyone. Source: AAP
But she said the countries that have fared the best are those who incorporated rapid antigen testing early on in the pandemic.
“When the UK decided to open despite fairly high case rates, they understood they were going to have real demands on testing that they weren't going to be able to meet just with PCR tests,” she said.
“And so they actually have made rapid antigen tests available … you can ask for once a day, a shipment of a kit of seven tests.”
Professor Baxter said while the United States has been “late to the game” on rapid testing, they’ve now committed to sending 500 million kits out to homes for free in the near future.
“And in Canada, in Ontario, they recently offered two million kits that they were handing out at pop-up sites,” she said.
Should Australia make rapid antigen tests free?
Following “significant public concern”, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) announced on Tuesday it would examine the pricing of RATs.
The ACCC will be examining claims that the current pricing levels of RATs are due to supply issues.
“We are seeking information from suppliers about their costs and the current pricing of rapid antigen tests,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said.
“We are also asking them about their current stock levels, and the amounts on order, and about their expectations about when additional tests may become readily available to consumers.”
A generic image of person holding up a SARS CoV-2 Rapid Antigen Test showing a negative test result in Canberra. Source: AAP
But other countries have gone one step further than Australia, with The Philippines’ government regulating the price of RATs, enforcing a price cap of 960 Philippine pesos ($25.94).
In Thailand, a subcommittee has been set up to regulate the distribution and ensure a fair price for RATs, according to the .
Professor Baxter said the price gouging of RATs was “not Australian”.
“We know that the pandemic has had a much greater impact on people who have a lower socioeconomic status, people in crowded housing, people doing essential labour, and who are generally poorly paid,” she said.
“These are the people that have really borne the brunt of this pandemic, they've had the highest number of cases, they've suffered the most serious consequences.
“So at this point, to kind of limit access [to] the rapid antigen tests … it is just wrong … because it's just going to make this pandemic even more inequitable.”
Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Victoria's Deakin University, said the Australian government should provide free RATs for those who need them most.
“I don't think the answer is just making them free for all and having an unlimited supply because we just run the risk of what's happening now [where] even when people have to pay for them, they've disappeared off the shelves,” she told SBS News.
“People who have a diagnosed condition that makes them vulnerable, people who are living in a high-risk setting, they're the people that should be able to access them.”
A drive-through COVID-19 PCR testing clinic in Sydney. Source: Getty Images AsiaPac
She said that the government should improve messaging on when to use RATs so that people aren’t panicking about needing to get tested in cases where it’s unnecessary.
“I think rather than saying ‘don't panic buy’, the messaging should be about when you need a test and how to use them in a way that benefits you,” Processor Bennett said.
“And if that works, then once we restore supply, hopefully, they won't just be swept up again by people that don't meet any of those criteria but are just buying the test to put in the cupboard just in case.
“If you never need them … then you've stopped four or five other people from actually getting tests where it could’ve really made a difference.”