Amanda (not her real name) placed an order of 50 rapid antigen tests just after Christmas.
Amanda works for a healthcare non-governmental organisation in South Australia that provides critical support to some of the most vulnerable members of the community, including people with disability and the elderly.
“Sometimes to provide support, we need to go to an aged-care facility or to someone’s house and be in very close proximity to them,” Amanda told SBS News.
As Omicron surges through the country, it is imperative Amanda’s small team of healthcare workers use RATs to test themselves on a regular basis.
“While we use PPE - so we wear masks and shields - with the use of rapid antigen test kits, we could quickly find out if a staff member has COVID or not. And if they do, they could go and quarantine,” she said.
But on 4 January, the day Amanda was supposed to receive her order, she was told by RAT wholesaler and retailer, Adelaide Direct Stationers, that her order, along with many others, has been seized by the government for “public health reasons”.
In fact, in a message posted on its website, Adelaide Direct Stationers said: “Dear customer, since selling out of initial rounds of supply for Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) we have been taking pre-orders, anticipating further supply in the New Year.
“Our supplier has since informed us that our scheduled delivery will no longer be delivered to us due to government action to seize RAT supply at the point of import for public health reasons."
Message posted by Adelaide Direct Stationers on its website. Source: Supplied
Amanda was shocked to see that message.
“I was horrified that as a disability [support] provider, I was trying to be organised and responsible, yet the government could take away my ability to service my clients,” she said.
SBS News contacted Adelaide Direct Stationers who refused to comment on the matter.
However, a number of RAT wholesalers and community pharmacists have raised similar concerns across the country.
“There is speculation that it is the government that is currently taking it,” Michael Leone of pharmaceutical wholesaler Barrett’s Distributors told SBS News.
“We’ve had three orders from just before Christmas and they haven’t been fulfilled … and the response to us was that essentially the stock has been furloughed by the government,” Mr Leone, who lives in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, said.
It's a similar situation over in Sydney.
“We’ve had quite a few orders with different companies prior to Christmas, [which] were meant to come in this week and towards the end of last week,” Catherine Bronger, pharmacist and owner of the 24-hour Chemistworks in Sydney’s Wetherill Park, told SBS News.
The orders haven’t arrived.
“And certainly when I’ve spoken individually to different reps to ask what’s happened, they’ve understood their supply has been taken at the point of import [by] the government,” she said.
Sydney-based RAT supplier HiCraft also told customers this week that a recent recall of its RAT was related to a "Government Emergency Requisition".
On Tuesday afternoon it sent an email to its customers saying: “We are emailing you to advise that our stock of the Orawell Rapid Antigen Test Kits that we had secured has unfortunately been recalled and we have not been able to secure an accurate date for replacement stock to arrive.”
The email triggered concerns among some recipients about the safety of the kits, with HiCraft having to send a follow-up email a few hours later clarifying there were no safety concerns.
“The ‘recall’ of the Orawell Rapid Antigen Test was related to a Government Emergency Requisition and was not a quality recall. The Orawell product remains a valuable part of our product range and will be released to our customers again as soon as replacement stock is made available to us,” the follow-up email said.
The test is one of 21 RATs
currently approved and considered safe for use in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
An email one of HiCraft's customers received on Tuesday. Source: Supplied
“The current increase in COVID-19 infections is obviously placing tremendous strain on the supply chains for rapid antigen tests,” a spokesperson for HiCraft told SBS News in a statement.
“A combination of massive local demand coupled with current air and sea freight delays and demand from other countries is severely impacting the availability of rapid antigen tests in Australia.
“This has resulted in some importers over-selling their available stock and causing considerable difficulties for resellers and retailers who are counting on deliveries that then fail to materialise."
The spokesperson said HiCraft believes "the state and federal governments are doing the best they can to manage the competing demands for the limited stocks currently available".
“We believe the supply lines will start to improve early next month as more suppliers of rapid antigen tests achieve TGA approval for self-tests and existing suppliers ramp up their incoming shipments,” they said.
But Ms Bronger of Chemistworks in Sydney is worried that may be too late for some people.
“I know of kids who have parents in nursing homes and they just want to visit their family. I have experience with another lady last week who’s brother is in a care home, where there was an outbreak of COVID and she wanted to get enough [RATs] just so everyone can be tested.
“And I have nothing to give them because none of my orders have been delivered,” Ms Bronger said.
At the National Cabinet meeting last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his government would make free RATs available to concession card holders. There would be 200 million tests coming to Australia over the next two months, he said.
Catherine Bronger of Chemistworks in Sydney hasn't received her RAT orders. Source: Supplied
SBS News contacted the Department of Health for a comment on this matter on Tuesday and has not yet received a response.
In a statement to the ABC, the department said no mandate had been issued to divert RAT supplies from retailers or individuals, and that the government was "not seeking to place itself ahead of other commercial and retail entities".
"The Department of Health has purchased RAT supplied in accordance with Commonwealth Procurement Rules ... It is doing so through normal commercial channels," the statement said.