Malta’s government’s refusal to introduce a home testing system for COVID-19, unlike many other countries, is likely to needlessly prolong the duration of the pandemic in Malta.
As the less deadly and more transmissible Omicron variant of the virus sweeps across the globe and becomes the dominant variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, many governments are adapting their testing guidelines to relieve pressure on the healthcare system and promote a return to normality.
Malta however appears to be hesitant to make the same move, and while the health authorities should be commended for guiding the country through an unprecedented crisis, there is also something to be said about knowing when it is time to let go.
By opting for PCR testing over lateral flow tests (home kits) the country’s pandemic response has shifted from being about flattening the curve and ensuring that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed, to actively overwhelming the system in order to pursue what has become an academic study about who has the virus and who doesn’t, irrespective of whether they are infectious.
Some quick online research will show that PCR tests are a lot more sensitive than lateral flow tests, and in the context of a less dangerous virus, counterproductive.
Anyone who tests positive after a lateral flow test can conclude that they are almost certainly infectious.
The higher limit of detection means that the virus will have had to accumulate in significant amounts in the nose or throat.
On the other hand, a PCR test can give a positive result weeks after infection because it can detect small quantities of the virus’s genetic material, even if it is not replicating.
This doesn’t mean that we should not remain vigilant and continue to monitor the local epidemic through testing, but this can easily be done by testing random cohorts of the population periodically.
It also doesn’t mean that, should the pandemic take an unexpected turn for the worse, new measures shouldn’t or can’t be brought back into place. But at this point, given the limited threat, not allowing people to make their own responsible choices seems increasingly pointless.
Obviously, introducing a home testing system would require the state to place trust in its people, trusting them to treat the matter with the seriousness it deserves and to act responsibly and in a way that respects the collective good.
As is the case with other illnesses, like the flu, we need to start placing our focus exclusively on cases that show severe symptoms, rather than wasting resources on finding out who is technically carrying the virus.
The country appears to be at the tail end of the latest spike, driven mainly by Omicron. Despite a roughly ten-fold increase in active cases when compared to a year ago, hospitalisations and deaths have gone down dramatically.
Just like Malta was quick to react to the rapidly changing landscape when the pandemic hit, it must also be quick to react now, and ensure that the country’s return to normal is not needlessly delayed.
Do you think home-testing should be allowed?