COVID-19 self-test kit crisis looming large amid Omicron spread

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COVID-19 self-test kit crisis looming large amid Omicron spread

Health worker organizes boxes containing COVID-19 self-test kits at a public health center in Seoul, Friday. Yonhap

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Korea reports all-time high of 16,096 infections, causing panic buying of self-test kits

By Bahk Eun-ji

Global Tech News Daily

The demand for at-home test kits has been soaring following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the nation, spawning fears that the country may face a shortage crisis of the self-diagnosis testing kits.

The fears are mounting as the government has shifted to a new medical response focusing on early diagnosis and treatment of high-risk groups, with the country reporting an all-time high of 16,096 new COVID-19 infections for Thursday, including 15,894 local cases. Health authorities expect the daily infection tally to reach as many as 100,000 in the weeks to come.

Global Tech News Daily

In order to deal with a spike in the number of daily infections, the Korea Centers for Disease Control Agency (KDCA) said that from Feb. 3, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will be carried out only for those in high-risk groups such as the elderly aged 60 or older, and those who have had close contact with confirmed patients.

Low-risk groups showing suspected symptoms will undergo PCR tests through rapid antigen tests or self-test kits in case they test positive.

In accordance with the government’s transition to the new COVID-19 testing system, pharmacists, as well as citizens, have begun to voice concerns that the shortage of self-testing kits could trigger another crisis as seen in the facemask crisis, at the onset of the pandemic.

Baek Hye-seon, a pharmacist in northern Seoul’s Nowon District, said her pharmacy saw an increase in the number of customers who purchased at-home test kits after the government announced that PCR tests were only for high-risk groups.

“Customers usually buy 30 to 40 kits at once,” she said.

Some pharmacists complained about the shortage of supplies.

Choi, who runs a pharmacy in Mapo District, Seoul, said that people are stocking up on at-home test kits just like the stockpiling of face masks in the early stage of the pandemic.

Panic buying occurs as a consequence of the surge of the Omicron variant which has brought new all-time highs in additional cases of COVID-19 infections day after day.

Lee Sun-sook, 55, who lives in Seongbuk District, Seoul, said, “I bought them in a hurry this morning when I saw a newspaper article that said it may become difficult to buy self-testing kits as the Omicron variant cases surge with new record highs with every passing every day.”

“I know such at-home testing kits are not 100 percent accurate, but I bought them anyway because they will be much needed,” Lee said.

Kim Jung-hwa, a mother of two elementary school children in southern Seoul’s Seocho District, said, “I bought a dozen of the kits in advance because I am afraid to go to a public health center to get tested where people are crowding.”

“I feel more comfortable checking them at home in advance,” Kim said.

Some citizens said they joined the buying spree because they were anxious about the spread of the Omicron variant.

Rho Hyun-mi, 28, an office worker in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, said, “I bought it because I was nervous about going down to my hometown in Daegu during the Lunar New Year holiday.”

“My parents are older so I thought I should check myself before I meet them for their safety,” Rho said.

Experts said that it is possible to detect cluster infections by using such at-home test kits, but the diagnosis accuracy will be low if it is not used accurately.

Kim Shin-woo, professor of the infectious diseases department at Kyungpook National University Hospital, advised the proper use of the at-home test kits.

“In the case of medical institutions, samples are collected by poking at the nasopharynx, but if you do it alone, you often cannot reach the point,” Kim said.

There are a total of 74 COVID-19 diagnostic reagents officially approved in Korea, among them, the self-diagnostic test kits that can be purchased by individuals at pharmacies are three products manufactured by Humasis, SD BioSensor, and Rapigen. The rest are for professionals.

Regarding the issue, the government is strengthening cooperation with manufacturers to stabilize the supply of at-home test kits. The three manufacturers of self-testing kits such as Rapigen, Humasis, and SD Biosensor signed a business agreement with the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety Thursday, and decided to continuously expand production.

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