COVID tests: Timing is critical

COVID tests: Timing is critical

In September, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that international travel would be allowed, there was a stipulation that to travel into and out of South Africa, travellers would need to present a negative COVID polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result, not older than 72 hours.

Travel News was told by an agent on the COVID-19 Public Hotline that travellers would be asked to present this test when passing through immigration on departure from and arrival to South Africa. However, outbound travellers will also need to meet the requirements of their various onward destinations, some of which require a more recent test, as well as those of the airline, which also vary. Emirates, for example, requires a test taken a maximum of 96 hours before departure, but Lufthansa requires one taken a maximum of 48 hours before departure.

This can be a more complex process than meets the eye. For example, a pax travelling to Germany will need to present a negative test no older than 72 hours in order to leave SA. They will also need to produce a test no older than 48 hours from the time of departure to enter Germany, or they must test on landing and go into quarantine until the results are available.

If the passenger is travelling on a flight departing after 17h00, when the testing sites are closed, they will need to take the test the day before they depart to ensure it is recent enough, but this also means taking the risk that the results will not be available when the flight departs.

To mitigate the risk, one traveller on a Friday evening flight took two tests: one on Wednesday morning, which would be ready in time to fulfil the requirement to depart South Africa, and a second test on Thursday that fulfilled the requirement to enter Germany, but he was not guaranteed to have the result before departure.

Travellers will also need to ensure they are tested at their destination prior to departure, because to board the flight back to SA,  they will need to present a negative test recent enough to meet the requirements of the airline, and the 72-hour window to enter South Africa again.

The COVID PCR test that is required for travel is one of three COVID tests currently available. The other two are the SARS-CoV-2 IgG antibody tests and the SARS-CoV-2 antigen tests.

Professor Eftyhia Vardas, head of Virology at Lancet, told Travel News: “Most airlines, and the SA national guidelines for travellers, request that COVID PCR testing be done no more than 72 hours before the traveller’s flight.”

She explained the differences in the tests:

1.  The conventional COVID PCR test takes upper respiratory tract samples (nasopharyngeal/nasal/oral) and detects fragments of the virus itself. This indicates an active infection.

2.The SARS-CoV-2 IgG antibody test detects immunological markers of previous COVID infection or exposure to the virus in the last 14 days.

3. Like the PCR test, the SARS-CoV-2 antigen test uses upper respiratory tract samples to detect fragments of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself. However, this test uses different technology and is faster, with turnaround times of 15 to 30 minutes.

“These antigen tests have been approved by the US FDA and other regulatory authorities around the world, but have not been approved for use yet in South Africa,” says Eftyhia.

The COVID PCR test is offered at state hospitals as well as private laboratories, namely Pathcare, Ampath, and Lancet.

However, because at state hospitals the test is only available for patients that present with symptoms, potential travellers will need to go to a private laboratory to be tested.

The test costs R850 at all the laboratories. The laboratories also offer the SARS-CoV-2 IgG antibody tests, but this test is not sufficient for travel. The antibody test is R230 at Lancet and Ampath and R179,30c at Pathcare.

All three labs, Lancet, Pathcare and Ampath say their PCR test results are available within 48 hours of the test sample arriving in the laboratory.

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