As 2021 lurched towards an uncertain and stressful finale, Australians found themselves engaged in what felt like a dystopian version of the digital treasure hunt game: Pokémon GO.
Instead of scouring our neighbourhoods and cities for cute digital phantoms, we were on the hunt for Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs).
All over the country, pharmacies and shops were besieged as desperate people – unable to secure a PCR test to find out their COVID-19 status – searched for a precious RAT before they vanished.
It was yet another shameful episode in the long series of Morrison’s mismanaged responses to the pandemic.
What made it worse is that it never needed to be this way.
Australian medical manufacturers have been ready and waiting for government to support them in kickstarting large-scale and onshore manufacturing of RATs.
Despite their entreaties over the last two years, Scott Morrison has sat on his hands as Australia endured an embarrassing RAT shortage.
Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Liam O’Brien told On the Job that working Australians are paying the price for the Morrison government’s short sightedness.
“It’s really disappointing that the Morrison government didn’t take on board the proposals put forward by industry to manufacture rapid tests 18 months ago,” O’Brien said.
“If they had done, then we would not be in the situation we are today where Australians are clamouring to get their hands on these precious items”
“This is just like at the start of the pandemic where we couldn’t make masks, we couldn’t make hand sanitiser.”
“This speaks volumes about the lost domestic manufacturing capability in this country, under this government, and how it leaves us really vulnerable, especially when we face supply chain issues around the world,” he said.
Last week, leading industry figures again called on the government to provide support for local manufacturing to ensure that Australia is self-sufficient when it comes to supplying RATs.
Pathology Technology Australia is the peak body for the manufacturers and importers of tests and technologies.
It believes that with an outlay of $20 million it could ensure that local manufacturers can establish facilities to develop and manufacture RATs and other tests onshore.
That would be not only a sensible strategic health initiative, but it would also be a driver of new jobs in smart manufacturing – something Australia needs.
Pathology Technology Australia CEO Dean Whiting insists his organisation is apolitical. He claims they are speaking with all sides of politics in its quest to get onshore medical testing manufacturing up and running in Australia.
When speaking with On the Job, Whiting was quick to point out that several Australian companies were already producing RATs, but had shifted their manufacturing offshore to North America and Europe due to lack of government support.
“State governments, and the federal government were all involved in discussions over a year and a half on the potential to produce (RATs). Regardless of their political persuasion, we really struggled as a collective and as individuals to get much, much traction, unfortunately,” Whiting said.
“Back at that time when critical decisions needed to be made we had one of the world’s best PCR based services, so you can understand the focus was in lots of different places.”
“The impetus was not around Rapid Antigen Tests or the capability. Now, we’re swinging back to that. Clearly we have lessons to be learned. We have now got opportunities to establish these kinds of industries in Australia, to serve us better into the future,” Whiting said.
Whiting was clear about the two steps he believed essential to ensure local manufacturing of RATs can succeed.
“The first thing we need is a clear by local mandate, a local procurement policy.”
“The second thing we need is a level playing field when it comes to test reimbursement or subsidisation. When you have a blood test in this country, you’ve never had to put your hand in your pocket for any of those tests. They’re all 100% Medicare rebated.”
“So, what we would need to have is a level playing field here with these tests that are produced locally having the same kind of Medicare reimbursement to make them affordable in the market here as well,” Whiting said.
Liam O’Brien is adamant that the federal government needs to take the lead to help establish onshore manufacturing of RATs.
“The most effective thing that federal government could be doing right now is giving a commitment to make rapid tests free and accessible for all Australians,” O’Brien said.
“That would send enough of a signal to those manufacturers that Australia is open for business when it comes to these critical tools. Those are the things we need to see from the federal government in terms of leadership around these issues.”